Process Thought: Feminist Friendly Metaphysics by Xochitl Alvizo


To be is necessarily to be in process and engagement with the lure of creative advance (that is, with God). In this sense, God is the poet of the world continually luring the world toward its full be-coming.

“It all goes back to one’s metaphysics.” That is what my TA said in the first theology class I took during my masters program. We were discussing our theological statements in class – a statement that outlines our individual understanding of God, humanity, sin, etc. – presenting them to one another for feedback and discussion.  As we argued  and discussed (“How can you possibly believe that?”) our TA made the case that our theological statements and the varying differences among them were largely determined by our particular metaphysics – that is, they are determined by whatever we hold to be the nature of existence.  That is to say, if science studies the physical world, metaphysics is the result of asking questions about the underlying reality of that physical world – about the nature of the physical world and by extension all of existence. As one can imagine, not all metaphysics are created equal, but all of them are theories with enormous implications.

Some people hold to a metaphysics in which reality can be reduced to particular matter or elements, solid, stable, unchanging entities, which then mix together to make up more complex entities. This actually is the default metaphysics that is at play in most people’s thinking without their conscious assent. There is also a different metaphysics that many feminist thinkers prefer – Mary Daly and Carol Christ among them – which does not pare down reality to elements or stable compounds, but understands the nature of reality as being one of process and relationality. In this metaphysics, process involves perpetual change and creative advance. Mary Daly’s understanding of God/Goddess/Being is grounded on such a metaphysical understanding. In the Wickedary Mary Daly defines God as a verb:

Be-ing: v1: “Ultimate/Intimate Reality, the constantly Unfolding Verb of Verbs which is intransitive, having no object that limits its dynamism  2: the Final Cause, the Good who is Self-communicating, who is the Verb from whom, in whom, and with whom all true movements move” (64).

In her understanding of Be-ing, the Divine is ever changing, always in movement, and the source of our own existence, an existence that is itself active, ever changing, and always in process. The metaphysics that lends itself to this kind of understanding of the Divine is grounded on the work of Alfred North Whitehead and Process thought.

Whitehead’s work is extensive and dense, but it is also beautiful and poetic (an outgrowth of his process way of thinking of course), and it is captured well in this one sentence from his work Process and Reality (346). The breakup of the sentence into short segments is my own creativity at play:

The wisdom of subjective aim

prehends

every actuality

for what it can be

in such a perfected system

its sufferings, its sorrows, its failures, its triumphs, its immediacies of joy

woven

by rightness of feeling

into the harmony of the universal feeling,

which is always immediate,

always many, always one,

always with novel advance,

moving onward

and never perishing.

Of course, this sentence would have to be broken down piece by piece in order to begin to get at its meaning, especially because process thought has some unique vocabulary. I will not try to do this now, but I do want to at least get your feet wet and hopefully pique your interest a bit for more process metaphysics by presenting you with two key components: God as subjective aim, and prehension.

The wisdom of subjective aim ~ the wisdom of God. All entities, human and nonhuman, exist in a constant experience of interrelation and interrelatedness of which God is an integral part. The possibilities at play for any give entity as it is in the process of be-coming are endless as they include all the input from the past and all the potential of the future. As such, in process thought, God is a directive lure that guides and shapes an entity’s becoming; God is that subjective aim luring an entity into completion and out of the realm of pure potentiality. God is the general metaphysical character of ‘creative advance’ that lures each and every actual entity (human and non) into be-ing. Thus, to be is necessarily to be in process and in engagement with the lure of creative advance (that is, with God). In this sense, God is the poet of the world continually luring the world and every actual entity within it toward its full be-coming.

The wisdom of subjective aim

I dream of erotic passion that proclaims

And grounds power to offer my full Self.

For a moment I live with creativity

Previously unknown. I no longer ask: what if . . .?

                                                  ~Jaclyn Jones

Prehend ~ Feeling. One might ask how it is that an emerging actual entity has access to all of the possibilities that God holds together and how it can even process all the ‘data’ that is available to its becoming. In its becoming, an actual entity receives from the past and becomes in the present by prehending, a process of feeling adversion and aversion – adversion being positive prehension or feeling of a particular datum and aversion being negative prehension or feeling of a particular datum. Prehension is a valuing-up or a valuing-down of all the data that an entity processes un/subconsciously until its “life” finally culminates and “transmits as novelty, vivid originality.”

Prehends

Sometimes I sit

And think about my life

And how I got to where I am

The different roads I’ve taken

The people

The places

The events

The highs

The lows

The in-betweens

And I smile

Not because it’s always been good

But because it’s me

And all those roads

Wherever they’ve been

And whatever they’ve done

Have all come together

In me

                          ~Patrina Hull

In a way, even if partly unconscious, every entity in its process of becoming must face the question of what sort of entity it will make itself, and the Divine lure is that tender patient poet leading the entity in creative advance toward what it can be.

I dream of all that you can be

And lure you to your best

For a moment I think you might go that way

And even if you change your mind – I’ll love you nonetheless

                                                                                                 ~Xochitl Alvizo

I don’t know if it all does indeed go back to metaphysics like my TA said, but Process metaphysics does seem to make a beautiful partner for feminist thea/ology.

Xochitl Alvizo is a feminist Christian-identified woman and theologian currently completing her PhD at Boston University School of Theology in practical theology with a focus on ecclesiology. Finding herself on the boundary of different social and cultural contexts, she works hard to develop her voice and to hear and encourage the voice of others. Her work is inspired by the conviction that all people are inextricably interconnected and the good one can do in any one area inevitably and positively impacts all others. 

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Categories: Feminist Theology, God-talk, Mary Daly, Naming, Poetry

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10 replies

  1. You’re so SMART! “lure of creative advance”–I’m in love with this phrase. Love!

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    • Hehe, mostly I’m communicating someone else’s brilliance. ‘Lure’ and ‘creative advance’ are very much Whitehead’s terminology. If you like this you should read some process thea/ology, you’ll love it. I have always said that process theologians make for more excellent human beings – they really do!

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  2. For completely biased reasons, of course, I think you are totally right! : )

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  3. Love the post.

    On “creative advance” I think Whitehead was subscribing to an idea of “progress” throughout human history. Is e.g. Colonial America a “creative advance” on Iroquois society? Can anyone today think that the world is “advancing” towards global catastrophe? Yes, Whitehead allows for tragedy, but I cannot read world history as advancing creatively towards something better. Perhaps Whitehead can be read as not meaning that, but if so, why does he not speak simply of creativity and not of “advance.” As a woman and an anti-warrior, I certainly do not read the Greek patriarchal and warrior-honoring society of classical Athens (democracy for whom?) as an advance over the peaceful, sedentary, egalitarian, matrifocal societies of Old Europe. Women’s lot has not advanced over time, but rather declined, perhaps her Whitehead’s white male (colonial) educated-in-the-Western-tradition-of-great-male-thinkers bias is operating.

    That there is creatiity and that every creative act (all acts are creative) creates something “new” is true, but that the novel equates to advance, is questionable. On this subject, I prefer Hartshorne.

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    • Thanks Carol.

      Yes, that is probably true that he was under the influence of a ‘progress’ way of thinking – especially at his time in history it was a characteristic way of thinking. The only thing that occurs to me is that Whitehead also framed this ‘creative advance’ within God as subjective aim, and in that sense the lure, and the advance, comes from a God that holds all things together in harmony. It could be argued that the advance is toward God’s “vision of truth, beauty, and goodness” (P & R, 346). Nonetheless, you are right – at this point the way that Hartshorne builds on Whitehead’s metaphysics in more constructive and value-explicit directions is much more helpful.

      You know, your point about the ‘advance’ part of creativity reminds me of the problematic aspect of the term ‘occupy’ for the Occupy Movement – concerns have been raised for very similar reasons.

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  4. for anybody who wants an accessible intro to process thought on religion, i suggest Charles Hartshone, Omnipotence ando other theological mistakes.

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  5. I am not familiar with either Hartshone or Whitehead, but I think I better find out-QUICK!!
    They sound awesome,

    I like the prehend idea of adversion and aversion (attraction and diversion), It sounds to me a bit like Ignatian Spirituality of affective movements of consolation and desolation.

    I often reflected on, Be-ing, myself and named it what it is, a gerund, in my theology classes–I got many quizzical looks– because it presupposes ongoing action and is not a static noun, but an active noun with a verb form, so it contains both stationary and active roles.

    The whole becoming idea to me seems a bit Heidegerrian as we are always in a state of becoming–totally active process. Although Heidegger stated that we are always ‘ahead of ourselves’, perhaps, but one must think it before becoming it, n’est-ce pas?
    Thanks for this, Xochitl

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