Ask Dr. Cobb

December 2005 Question

If God offers the occasion an initial aim for its becoming, is any deviation from that initial aim merely a declension from the perfect lure of God? If so, what creativity can there be?—only success or failure to realize a goal presented from without. And that isn't genuine creativity.

Dr. Cobb's Response

This is a question that arises inside the process community in several forms. In one of those forms, it was a concern of Charles Hartshorne. He felt that if all possibilities are already known by God, then the actualization of some of them by creatures did not really add to the divine experience. I have never understood this concern, or at least I have not shared it. To me the difference between abstract possibility and full actuality is enormous. The former is without value. The latter is the embodiment of value. God’s aim is the increase in value. Therefore, it makes a great deal of difference, I am inclined to say all the difference, which possibilities are actualized.

The present question is a little different. It is about creativity. In order to respond one has to ask: What is “genuine creativity?” Simply for clarity’s sake, we should make clear that the questioner is not asking about “creativity” in Whitehead’s sense. For Whitehead every event is an instance of creativity. Creativity is the metaphysical ultimate of which every event is an instantiation. This would include the most trivial occurrences and the most despicable ones just as much as the creation of a work of art.

The questioner obviously means something richer and of greater consequence. In common parlance today, creativity is associated especially with the arts and involves bringing into being something that expresses the unique vision of the creator. I am assuming that the question has something of this sort in mind. The question is how this creative act can be understood in relation to the Whiteheadian idea that God calls each occasion to realize the optimum value that is possible in its situation.

Probably the problem arises not so much from the idea of a general call in the direction of increasing the realization of value but with the idea that God already knows just what creaturely act would accomplish that. The implication is, then, that this act, however creative in terms of its results, is simply actualizing what God makes it possible to actualize. The questioner feels that this reduces the significance of the act. One is at most actualizing the possibility that God already defines as best in that situation.

Again, I do not feel the problem as the questioner does. Yes, in a Whiteheadian view God does know what acts would bring about the most value and lures creatures toward those acts. But it is the creature that brings the value into being. This is the creative act.

Would the act be more creative if it created the possibility as well as the actuality? I have difficulty understanding what that means. Surely from the beginning of time everything that has ever happened has been a possibility in the abstract, nontemporal sense. The vast majority of possibilities are never actualized. Indeed most of these have never been really possible in the sense that the circumstances which would allow them to be realized have never obtained. Still there are alternative available possibilities, and it makes a huge difference which ones are actualized. It is my hope that I actualize possibilities that add to the value of the creaturely world in itself and for God.

Note that I have distinguished two meanings of “possible”. We can distinguish what is actually possible at any given time and place from what is abstractly possible at any time and place. These actual possibilities are far more limited than the abstract ones, and they are constantly changing. What is actually possible in one moment depends on many things including past human actions. In this sense human beings are always creating new possibilities through their decisions. On the other hand, pure possibilities are completely abstract and timeless. Whitehead calls them eternal objects.

Hopefulness is an eternal object. God knows it as a possibility without reference to any actual possibility of its becoming ingredient in the creaturely process. God knows not only such simple eternal objects but also their relations to one another. Every actual entity actualizes a complex eternal object which is a pattern of simpler ones. All such patterns are eternally in God, constituting God’s primordial nature, which in itself is not conscious. God’s aim at the realization of value renders some limited selection of these pure possibilities relevant as real possibilities for actualization in each concrete situation. They become thereby the initial phase of the subjective aim of the occasion. It is in that role, for the first time, that particular complex eternal objects are related to the actual world. They all become ingredient in actual occasions as real possibilities for actualization. Just one of them becomes ingredient as the form of an actual occasion. Which one is the decision of the creature.

To me, this fact that all possible forms that actual occasions take are included in the Primordial Nature of God does not take away from the creativity expressed by creatures in actualizing some of these forms. That that form became available for actualization is the result of previous creaturely decisions. In the human case, the previous decisions of the person in question are often the most important. The creativity of one moment builds on the unique results of the creativity of previous moments. Whether what is actualized is the optimum value is always a factual question. Sometimes there is rather vivid sense of disappointment that one has fallen short of what one could have been or done. But one may still rejoice in the creativity that has occurred.

I am not an expert on the psychology of creativity. But my sense is that I am most creative when I am least self-consciously so. Since my creativity is in the field of thought, and is often expressed best in writing, I will describe that experience. I feel most creative when the words flow onto the page almost of their own accord. In some sense at that moment I feel more a conduit of creation than one who is in control. I do not experience any tension here with the idea that in those moments I am responding rather fully to God’s lure.

From what little I have read of the self-description of others, what I have described is not unusual. In the most creative moments the ego tends to disappear. Few find it natural to make great claims for their private achievement as self-contained persons. Most are, in some sense, lost in their work. The word “inspired” sometimes appears in such descriptions.

A closely related concern is suggested by the formulation of the question. It is the moral one. In the moral realm the best that persons can do is simply respond fully to God’s call. That means that to whatever extent they are virtuous, this is God’s work. Human acts are visible only in the resistance to God’s call, that is, in what the New Testament calls harmartia, missing the mark, or sinning.

Many people resent this formulation which suggests that God gets all the credit for virtue and human beings get all the blame for sin. There is some justification for this. However, the situation can be described better in a somewhat different way. Apart from God, that is, apart from the real relevance of unrealized possibilities, each human action would be quite simply the result of its total past. Ideas of sin and virtue would be quite meaningless. But in fact every event is affected not only by its inclusive past but also by alternative possible responses to that past. For this reason the occasion makes a decision as to which of the forms actually possible in that situation will be realized. In making this decision it is free. The decision is not determined by the past or by God. The act is self-determined. Because of God we are free and self-determining beings.

Some decisions realize more value than others and affect their future in ways more conducive to the realization of values by others. God lures in the direction of optimal value achievement. Typically the lure is in some tension with the influence of the personal past. This is because inertial forces, habits, and self-regarding motives, work against optimal creativity. Accordingly, we often fail to realize the full potential of the moment. We are aware of missing the mark to some extent. But sometimes we find that we have done better than we knew. We have overcome the drag of negative aspects of the past and genuinely ventured into new territory. If we are believers, we are likely to thank God for liberating and empowering us for this new beginning.

To me it does not seem oppressive or unjust to think that we owe to God or to the working of grace the actual possibility of transcending our past and being genuinely creative. It does not seem demeaning to us as creatures to recognize that we do not always take full advantage of this opportunity given by God. Nevertheless, our falling short does say something about who and what we are.

Much of this difference between myself and the questioner may stem from the fact that my Christianity is deeply shaped by the Protestant tradition. Protestants have denied that there can be any works of supererogation, that is, doing more than God calls us to do. To give God thanks for all that is good in my life and to accept responsibility for my many failures seems natural and healthy. It is not healthy, however, if I do not also take pleasure in the extent to which I do sometimes respond well to God’s call. I am grateful to God that I have done so, since apart from God’s gracious working in my life, there would be no creative possibilities and, even if there were, I would have ignored them. But God did not control my response. That was truly mine, and to whatever extent I have realized values that God made it possible for me to realize, I can rejoice.

The implications of Whitehead’s vision, at least as I understand it, are quite similar to the teachings of the New Testament, at least as I read it. For some, that is a strong commendation. For others, it is not. I belong to the former group and hence do not feel the problem expressed by the questioner. But I certainly recognize that there are other forms of piety and spirituality for which human freedom is an intrinsic feature of human existence and each person is free to create his or her future. No grace is needed. Good decisions require no explanation other than the naturally given human freedom. Whitehead’s analysis does not justify this picture and will, therefore, disappoint those who have adopted it.

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