A Whiteheadian Response: The God of Persuasion

Question: “Please help me to further understand, I thought that God did not direct our lives. We made choices, those choices CREATED—God’s presence is in the creation of the choice which WE made. Is this correct?”

In his seminal work Process and Reality, British mathematician Alfred North Whitehead speaks of God as the ground of novelty, the persuasive power of creativity that aims to draw all life into conscious harmonization. He writes: “[God] does not create the world, [God] saves it: or, more accurately, [God] is the poet of the world, with tender patience leading it by [God’s] vision of truth, beauty, and goodness.”[1] In opposition to many conventional theological beliefs, Whitehead’s understanding of God’s power is neither omnipotent nor coercive but is wholly persuasive.

         John Cobb, a preeminent process thinker, helpfully explains the distinction between coercive power and persuasive power. He describes coercive power as the measure to limit freedom by reducing one’s possibilities. By contrast, he describes persuasive power as the measure to enable the flourishing of freedom by presenting a wide range of possibilities for the greatest degree of novelty and union.[2] As the persuasive ground of novelty and freedom, God lures us toward a series of possibilities that enable us to co-create the world: to envision a reality beyond that which is presently actualized.

Far from coercing the world, a truly persuasive God knows what we are likely to choose but does not know what we will choose until a choice has been made, a decision rendered, an event actualized. God is all-knowing in the sense that God knows everything there is to be known: God fully apprehends the past, fully assimilates the novelty of the present, and fully envisions all the possibilities of the future. As an integral and intimate part of the relational process of life, God is the recipient of the world who lovingly guides the trajectory of evolution and completely absorbs the experience of every element of existence. American theologian Robert Mesle summaries the point well:

God is the only one who has the strength, the ability, to be open to every single experience in the world. God is the only one who can take everything in, integrate it with God’s own infinitely ancient wisdom, and create God’s self out of that relationship in each moment. God is the only one who can then feedback to every creature in the world a lure and call toward those possibilities that are best for it. All the possibilities are there, good and bad, but they come to us, Whitehead says, with God’s call toward the better.[3]

Let us therefore carefully discern together the range of possibilities that lead the world to the greatest freedom, love, and union. Let us be open to the persuasive power that is leading us to imagine alternative futures, ones that seek to actualize a world in which the entire gamut of life is enriched. Indeed, let us labor to make real God’s “infinitely possible” vision of truth, beauty, and goodness.

Notes:

[1] Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality, ed. David Ray Griffin and Donald W. Sherburne (New York: The Free Press, 1978), 464. [2] John Cobb, Jr., God and the World (Oregon: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 1998), 83. [3] C. Robert Mesle, Process-Relational Philosophy (West Conshohocken, PA: Templeton Press, 2008), 87.

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3 Comments

  1. Brian M Davis on June 21, 2022 at 6:43 am

    There’s a major perceptive problem here, that God is seen as separate from “creation”. This sense of dualism is the cause of trying to define the divinity as “coercive” or “persuasive” as though God exists outside of our reality and is trying to influence us in some way towards an end God only knows. If we consider ourselves and reality a part of divinity the need for such distinctions vanishes.



  2. Emily DeMoor on June 22, 2022 at 11:44 am

    Brian, that’s an interesting point. Is it possible that we and all of creation participates in the persuasive power of the divine? I think of the notion of “lure” as one that permeates creation. In “Entangled Life, How Fungi Make our Worlds, Change our Minds and Shape our Futures” Merlin Sheldrake develops the idea of lure in fungal interactions in very compelling ways that align with persuasive power, as depicted by the theologians cited above.



  3. astralstar17572 on June 26, 2022 at 7:50 am

    Brian and Emily, I find both of your points intriguing. Perhaps I read this from a naive viewpoint but the words ” integral”, and “intimate” lead me to a belief that God was truly within all life of our world. We were sharing the cosmotheandric relationship and were participating in creation of the present-past , the present and the future.
    My understanding was that God brought Their offer of both” good and evil” and we chose- thus participating. I didn’t understand this to say that God understood the specific outcome we would choose, rather that God offers all options, offers persuasion for the good, doesn’t know what will be chosen but knows the consequences of action or inaction. Sorta like watching Bloomberg news and being an ” armchair quarterback”.

    How off am I?

    Kay



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