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Ask Dr. Cobb

July 2002 Question

If God is evolving and changing, is God incomplete?

Dr. Cobb's Response

In one sense, the answer must certainly be Yes. To be complete, one might well argue, one must be completed, finished, unsusceptible of any change. In process theology, we teach that this is not the way to understand God.

But "complete" has other meanings. The first meaning listed in my dictionary is: "Having all necessary parts; entire; whole." By this meaning God is surely complete. God is lacking no "necessary part". God is entire and whole. Another meaning is "Thorough, consummate, perfect." In this sense too, God is complete.

There is one meaning, however, one that may be closer to what is on the questioner's mind, whereby God is not complete. This meaning is "Concluded, ended." God is not concluded or ended from the process perspective. God is everlasting and will never be concluded or ended.

Obviously, the question would not be asked if there were not a sense of God's completeness in traditional theology that is challenged by process theology. That needs to be unpacked. Traditional theology does not affirm that God is concluded or ended in a sense that might apply to creaturely processes. But it does affirm that God's nature, the content of God's being, has always be concluded and ended. Nothing can be added to it. If that is what is meant by complete, then process theology denies God's completeness. God lacks no necessary part, is entire, and whole; but this does not mean that God is static. To be entire and whole constantly involves the inclusion of a changing whole. As new events occur in the world the inclusive whole that is God includes those new events. If God did not include them, God would then not be complete. In a truly changing world, a God who did not include new events would not be complete.

Traditional theology did not intend to exclude any events, or at least knowledge of such events, from God. But to avoid this, while maintaining that nothing is ever added to the primordial completeness, traditional theology had to deny the reality of time for God. This is the central issue. Is temporal passage ultimately illusory, so that from the divine perspective all happens at once? That is the traditional view. Process theology rejects it. There is nothing in the Bible that supports it, and this view threatens the biblical understanding of the importance of history and of human responsibility.

Indeed, if one reads the Bible in any straightforward way, there is no question but that creaturely events have an impact on God that is not already predetermined. The Bible speaks often of God as interacting with human beings, and of this interaction as even changing God's mind. People are encouraged to try to influence God through prayer. None of this makes much sense if God is "complete" in the sense of eternally knowing all that has been, is, and will be as already being.

The "completeness" process theology rejects is in fact not part of much popular piety. One suspects that the questioner is not really concerned for it. The form of the question suggests that there is some misunderstanding about process theology. Process theology does not affirm that God "evolves" in the usual meaning of that term, which today is bound up with "evolution". Again, I consult my dictionary, which gives as the primary meaning of "evolution": "A gradual process in which something changes into a significantly different, especially more complex or more sophisticated, form." Nothing like this happens in God. There is a gradual process of inclusion of all that happens in the created order, but this does not change the form of God. The content of the divine life certainly grows ever more complex, but this does not affect the nature of God. If God evolved in this sense, then the incompleteness of God would be religiously significant and disturbing.

I may, however, have read too much into the term "evolve". Our interest here must be the intransitive use of the term. Here my dictionary offers several meanings. The first is: "To be part of or subject to the process of natural, temporal, of biological evolution." Here the meaning depends on the understanding of evolution we have already considered. God does not "evolve" in this sense. Another meaning, however, is: "To undergo change or transformation." And although "transformation" would be misleading if applied to God, "change" may not be. It seems that the possibly correct meaning of God evolving is that God changes, and this is the second suggestion in the question.

Now, surely, in some sense, for process thought, God changes. Since this change does not involve any change in the form of God or in God's nature of character, it is better not to use the language of "evolution." But somewhat surprisingly, even the notion of "change" is problematic. Hartshorne affirms that God changes, Whitehead does not.

Change in process thought applies to the difference between successive occasions. In the concrescence of a single occasion, there is becoming, but not change. For Hartshorne, God is best understood as a personally ordered society of occasions of divine experience. Therefore, there is change from one occasion to another. The change is always one of increase. In each occasion God includes all that was included in the earlier occasions and more besides. For process theologians, there is nothing objectionable about such change. Certainly it does not imply any invidious "incompleteness" in any of the successive occasions. Most of us, therefore, do say, in contrast to classical theology that denies any mutability in God, that God changes. God is affected by the world and therefore is continually incorporating what happens.

It is noteworthy, however, that Whitehead does not describe God in this way. Although he agrees with Hartshorne that God is continuously incorporating the new events in the world into the divine life, he does not understand this as change. Change requires successive occasions in an enduring object. For Whitehead, God is a single everlasting concrescence. In such a concrescence there are continually new prehensions of the world incorporated in the ever-enlarging satisfaction, but there is no "change."

This ongoing debate among process theologians about how best to conceive the divine life is of chiefly technical interest. I mention it only to indicate that the accurate discussion of God's mutability in process theology is a long way from the kinds of "changes" that critics, and even some friends, attribute to us. Our claim is that God cares what happens in the world and is responsive to us. This is the common sense of most believers. Most do not accept in their personal piety the implications of divine immutability worked out in traditional philosophical theology. But they are sometimes left in confusion. Our contribution is to provide a philosophical theology that corresponds at a basic level with the presuppositions of biblical and popular theology, rather than opposing them.

Hence, our overall view is that God is indeed perfect and complete. To be perfect and complete, God must be perfectly and completely related to everything that happens as it happens. God everlastingly enriches the divine life though this inclusion of all that happens. God everlastingly responds perfectly to the ever-changing situation of creatures. This is the meaning of divine love.

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