Ask Dr. Cobb

November 2009 Question

What is the basis for human beings to discern God's persuasion if such a God does exist? How do we reconcile that image of God with a multitude of religious people who are persuaded to do destruction? Why does God not guide us away from dangers that are not humanly knowable?

Dr. Cobb's Response

Especially for Christian spirituality of a Whiteheadian sort, this question is central. We process theologians speak of divine persuasion as a crucial factor in our lives. We encourage the cultivation of sensitivity to it and the discipline of acting on its call. All of this assumes that we do, or can, discern this persuasion.

However, to many people this is not realistic. They feel urges and nudges of many sorts. They know that they have something like what Freud called a “superego” or a “conscience.” But they also know that this can be understood simply as internalizing what one is taught. If one grows up in a culture in which a white person is not supposed to dine with black persons, one may feel “conscience” warning one against doing so. Or one may feel the “rightness” of shunning gay people rather than conversing with them as friends. Assuming that these internalizations of cultural norms are not what process theologians point to as God’s persuasion, where do we find this persuasion in our actual experience?

In Whitehead’s technical language, we are asking about the “initial aim,” or the “initial phase of the subjective aim.” Whitehead asserts that there is a “subjective aim” and that its initial phase is derived from the primordial ordering of potentialities in the Primordial Nature of God. Whitehead's reasons for asserting this lie in the need to explain both order and novelty. What he is saying is that the possibility is so ordered as to generate in the world a combination of order and novelty that tends toward increasing value where the situation allows that.

Whitehead also believed that philosophy should explain how we are partially self-determining creatures rather than explain it away through deterministic doctrines. Accordingly, he asserts that the ordering of possibility allows for individual entities to determine exactly what they will become, and this may be something of less value than what is possible. He does not develop the doctrine for the sake of personal spiritual disciplines. One could agree with Whitehead’s metaphysics and yet not suppose that the distinction between the initial aim and the final subjective aim, that is the aim as influenced by other factors in experience, plays any role in consciousness.

However, for Whitehead religious experience is also part of the data of philosophy. It requires explanation. And it provides data for formulating and testing hypotheses. In Religion in the Making he twice makes reference to a widespread sense of a “rightness in things partly realized and partly missed.” He considers that this is felt transculturally.

I am persuaded that there is a pervasive, but rarely fully conscious, sense that what we in fact make of ourselves, moment by moment, is in many respects “right,” but that we sometimes, or even pervasively, fall short of what is possible. Occasionally this is quite vivid. We say something that we immediately regret having said. We stay with a group that we know is going in the wrong direction. We keep silent when we could have said something that needed to be said.

Whitehead noted that the “initial aim” is at the optimal value both in the immediate present and in the relevant future. There is often some tension between the two parts, and we sometimes recognize that we are seeking the immediate realization of value at the expense of less value in the future. The relevant future is not only one’s personal future, it includes the future of those who are affected by our actions. We sometimes recognize that we pay less attention to the anticipated effects on others than on our future selves. These are common ways in which we “miss the mark” set by the initial aim.

For the most part cultures recognize these norms and reinforce them in their teaching. However, cultures typically distort the divinely given norms. They provide a needed sense of a community with which each child can identify. This community contributes most of the “relevant future.” But often it enforces on the child a distinction of “us” and “them” that cuts against the recognition that “they” are also part of the relevant future with which we are called to be concerned. The examples above are of cultural exclusions of blacks or gays.

Process theology teaches that this cultural exclusion is countered by the divine inclusion. The deeper aim at contributing value to the future is not totally silenced by the cultural establishment of boundaries around “us.” When the universal message is proclaimed, it makes many angry, but it also finds some resonance. Whitehead says that morality has to do with breadth of the “relevant” future. Since God’s concern is all-inclusive, we can be pretty sure that the urge toward broadening the range of our concern derives from God.

The questioner points out that religious people do a great deal of evil. Whitehead agrees. He writes hyperbolically that the world itself cannot contain the bones of all who have been slaughtered in the name of religion. There are forms of religion that claim to state God’s will in fixed ways. They demand obedience to authorities. Much that they demand is good in its own way. But often this fixity leads to strong demarcations between those who conform to these ways and those who don’t. Often it leads to self-righteousness and contempt for others. Often it leads to hostility between competing religions.

“Religion” as such is neither good nor bad, or, rather, it can intensify either the good or the bad. Process theology does not encourage or discourage religiousness. It encourages people to love God and neighbor, expanded to all creatures, and to open themselves to God’s call. Christian process theology urges us to look to Jesus as our guide in understanding God’s purposes in the world.

Questions about what to do are not always about the breadth of the relevant future and how it relates to the immediate present. People who are concerned for all of God’s creatures face dilemmas. In responding to these uncertainties, God wants us to use all the intelligence we have in anticipating the consequences or alternative paths. Often God wants us to seek help and guidance from one another. We can sometimes see distortions in the ways others reason that we cannot see in our own. Or a group may come up with options that are better than the alternatives the individual is considering. Or the group may see that the answer is just to decide and plunge in.

The question remains, in such a situation can we hope for more specific guidance from God? Since God knows so much more than we, does God offer guidance that is influenced by this wider knowledge? If we identify and follow God’s call, can we expect to be guided in terms of God’s knowledge of the future instead of what is available to us?

In so far as the initial aim is derived from the Primordial Nature of God alone, it does not function in this way. 99% of what Whitehead writes is about this more general role of God in the world. But at the very end of Process and Reality he adds a couple of paragraphs that open doors to a much more personalized relation of God to creatures. He speaks of a “particular providence for particular occasions.” This suggests that God’s knowledge of the world, which is God’s inclusion of the past in the Consequent Nature, also participates in shaping the initial aim. This opens the door to believing many moving anecdotes, beginning with stories in the Bible and continuing to the present time. Perhaps God did warn Joseph in a dream about the threat to the babies in Bethlehem. Perhaps there are some people alive today because they heeded warnings against taking trains that were going to be wrecked.

The problem with such affirmations is that one wonders why such guidance is so rare. What about the other babies in Bethlehem? Why did God not warn everyone not to go to work in the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001?

One possible answer is that God does try to warn people, but most are not attuned. Perhaps the level of attunement necessary for any such message to come through with sufficient clarity to have an effect is very rare. Perhaps many who do sense the warning, dismiss it. Another possible explanation is that God exercises this special providence only when a great deal is as stake. I am not fully satisfied by such explanations. But I cannot easily cast aside all the testimony to a particular providence for particular occasions. There is much that happens that we do not understand.

If you found this article helpful, please consider contributing to Process & Faith by making a donation or becoming a member.