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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