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Ask Dr. Cobb

May 2005 Question

Is an occasion’s deriving its initial subjective aim from God the same as a Christian who says they felt God "calling" them to ministry of some sort? (The "calling" being the initial subjective aim for the Christian [occasion].)

Dr. Cobb's Response

This question asks how to relate Whitehead’s technical doctrine of the initial subjective aim to the biblical idea of God’s calling. This is important in itself and also as illustrative of the task of this kind of philosophical theology. I like the term “calling” and so use it often in describing how God deals with us. As far as I know, Whitehead did not use this word.

Whitehead believed that in every moment our experience is characterized by purposiveness. This does not mean that we always act with a clear conscious intention. But everything we do expresses in some way our aim to continue living, to live well, and to live better. In each situation, this aim has a particular content relevant to the concrete situation in which we find ourselves. The aim may be to go back to sleep, to protect oneself from the cold, to get something to eat, to help a friend, to become more responsive to God. Most of these aims are rooted in one’s bodily conditions. But they are not simply physical. They depend on taking into account some sense of unrealized possibility contrasted with what is. For example, if one is trying to satisfy one’s thirst, what is at work is not simply the physical discomfort but the awareness of an alternative possibility and attraction toward it.

This awareness of and desire for an alternative preferred possibility is the “subjective aim” of the occasion. It is derived from what Whitehead calls the “primordial” ordering of possibilities that establishes their relevance to every concrete situation. Every momentary experience arises largely out of its past and its body, but it also arises out of the “prehension” of relevant possibilities. Whitehead calls these possibilities “lures;” and the experience of these lures constitutes the initial phase of the subjective aim. As the occasion integrates these possibilities with the actualities inherited from the past, the subjective aim develops for good or ill.

It is not, I think, hard to sense that our actions are purposeful even when we are not conscious of the purpose. For the most part our purposes are not conscious, certainly not clearly so. In this respect, the examples I have given and the language in which I describe them may be misleading. Whitehead thinks consciousness illumines only the more complex features of our experience, whereas the aim, especially in its initial phase, is quite simple.

The initial phase of the subjective aim is derived from God’s ordering of possibility. It is the best possibility for that situation. It aims at realizing value in the occasion itself and also through its impact on future occasions. It does not compel the occasion to realize that possibility in its fullness. Also it does not dictate just how it will change as these abstract possibilities are integrated with the conditions provided by the past. The occasion may fall short of the ideal possibility for its actualization. Indeed, this often seems to occur, at least with human beings.

There is certainly a gap between what Christians commonly mean by God’s “calling” them and this philosophical account. Nevertheless, there is also a congeniality. The idea of God’s call is that God leads us to feel that a particular decision is the right one for us. The questioner speaks of the decision to enter the ministry. The idea of a “call” is often associated with this. The Reformers emphasized that every form of socially useful work can also be regarded as a calling. The wide use of the word “vocation” still today expresses that sense. In the Bible Jesus calls people to follow him and God calls people to prophecy. It is not unusual for Christians to say they feel called to help someone or contribute to some cause. I would like to extend the use of the term still further, and I am far from alone in this. I believe that God calls us moment by moment to be what it is possible, in that moment, to be. This comes close to Whitehead’s account.

The biblical stories of God’s calling show that a call may be resisted or even refused. Not all who are called respond. Nevertheless, the call is important for all. And failure to respond does not mean that God’s calling ceases. This also comes close to Whitehead’s account. The calling by God makes possible actions that would not otherwise be possible. It does not determine that they will be taken.

For process theologians the choice of how widely or how narrowly to use a word like “God’s call” is an open question. Certainly we will use it most often when we refer to major, fully conscious, decisions. But for us, these occasional and important decisions are usually a product of many, many smaller decisions. We do not see God’s calling as an abrupt introduction of a relation that is otherwise wholly absent. We see rather that God is continuously drawing us toward increased sensitivity, increased willingness to take risks, increased caring for others, and that it is only as we have often allowed ourselves to be drawn in these directions that we can receive and respond to the dramatic callings on which we usually focus. Because I see continuity between the many small, mainly unconscious, decisions and the occasional major conscious ones, I prefer to use the same terminology throughout. I think of the initial aim derived from God as God’s continual calling of all of us, Christians and others, to be and to do the best that is possible in each situation.

I also think of God’s calling of us in each moment as God’s wholly free gift to us. It is God’s grace. When we refuse and resist, God’s grace can also become God’s judgment. But it is always a gracious judgment. God does not give up on us. What was possible before one became addicted to cocaine is no longer possible. But there may still be possibilities to seek help to overcome the addiction. Even if one succeeds in this, there one must accept the fact that much that would have been possible had one not succumbed to the temptation is now forever impossible. But there are new possibilities for a recovering addict, possibilities that renew the path of growth. God offers us what we can receive.

I also think of God’s calling in each moment as guidance and providence. By offering us the best possibility for that moment God is giving us genuine and realistic guidance. The more sensitive and responsive we become, the more fully we will be guided. This is also the way divine providence works in the world.

I stated that this discussion of the initial aim and calling can serve as a model for the movement from philosophical conceptuality to Christian language. In this case, the philosophy frees us to use the theological language more straightforwardly than many modern people think possible. If the only way one can imagine being called by God is to hear a voice from heaven, then one may well regard this concept as having little applicability or even none at all. If one refers instead to a deep inward awareness of better and worse ways of constituting ourselves, many people can find resonance.

Those who oppose this way of relating philosophy and theology sometimes do so because they suppose that all the biblical language is bound up with supernaturalism. I believe that this reading of the Bible imposes on it a later framework. This later framework juxtaposes a self-sufficient nature to the realm of God. Hence God can only act on the world from outside it and can only do so in a way that violates the integrity of nature. There is nothing like this in the Bible itself. The Bible knows no self-sufficient nature. God is a factor in what happens in the world. In some instances God works in ways that are radically unexpected. But because there is no self-sufficient nature with its established laws, there is also no supernatural intervention.

There are, of course, differences between the worldviews underlying the Bible and the one that emerges from Whitehead’s reflections. Nevertheless, given the difference in time and context, the similarities are more surprising than the differences. For Whitehead also there is no supernaturalism because there is not nature apart from God’s creative involvement. God’s working in the world is internal to actual experience. That does not make it less real or less important. Given this vision, the notion of God intervening or setting aside the laws of nature simply makes no sense. God calls, directs, and transforms from within. As far as my experience goes, this is the kind of calling, directing, and transforming for which most thoughtful Christians hope.

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