Marjorie Suchocki says that feminist theology needs a metaphysics, a coherent world view that can hold together what we might otherwise be seen as a series of unrelated assertions made by feminists. Metaphysics is one of those terms that make most people cringe. If they have any idea at all what the word means, they might categorize metaphysics as the most abstract and out of touch with reality aspect of philosophy. In the Platonic tradition where ideas precede reality, metaphysical truths are revealed by rational contemplation of transcendent principles that precede the world. “I think, therefore, I am,” Descartes said. This notion of metaphysics makes me cringe too.
In process philosophy metaphysics refers to the fact that the world is governed by and expresses certain fundamental principles. This does not mean that ideas are more important than reality. Quite the opposite, metaphysical principles are conclusions reached through paying close attention to the world. Metaphysical principles are one of the ways we explain how the world works to ourselves. Because our explanations are always limited by our perspectives or standpoints, metaphysical principles as we know them are not certain and unchanging. This means that we should think of metaphysical principles in philosophy or theology not as not as “the complete and final truth about the world” but rather as “the best understanding of the world I have at this point in time from my standpoint and in conversation with others.”
For process philosophy the most essential of these principles are relationship, freedom, change, and interdependence. We are born into relationships with our mothers and the world. Our presence changes the lives of those who care for us, and we are shaped by the way they choose to relate to us. We change and are changed by every other individual we meet in the course of our lives. Our freedom exists within the context of relationships, and because our choices affect others as well as ourselves, our choices are important. These fundamental principles are expressed not only in human life but also in the world as a whole. We are all interconnected in the web of life.
Everything changes and is changed. All individuals in the web of life, human and other than human, affect and are affected by the others. We live in an interdependent world permeated by freedom. If this is what a process metaphysic means, I find more reason to rejoice than to cringe, because the process metaphysic makes sense of the world as I experience it.
For process philosophy, divinity is not the exception to metaphysical principles, but rather the most comprehensive example of them. As the most relational of all relational beings, and the most sympathetic of all sympathetic subjects, Goddess or God feels all of the feelings of the world and responds to them with perfect understanding. This also means that divinity changes with the changing world. When the world rejoices, divinity rejoices; when individuals in the world are violating each other, divinity feels the sadness and anger of the world and seeks to inspire a better way. The only thing that is unchanging in divinity is that Goddess or God will always respond to the world with love and understanding, and always desires the flourishing of the individuals within it.
Because there is real freedom in the world, God or Goddess cannot be in control of everything. Process philosopher Charles Hartshone calls the notion of divine omnipotence the “zero fallacy.” If God* has all of the power, then God has the power to determine the course of history. But if God has all of the power, then we have zero or none, and in fact there is no history, but only a divine dance with not even an audience to watch it. If God does not have all of the power, and the world has some power, then the power that God does not have must be sufficient to affect the course of events. If this is so, then God is not able to control the course of events, but only to influence them. The divine power is always a power of love and understanding, but this power is the power to persuade or inspire, not the power to produce the outcomes God might prefer.
Hartshorne’s discusses of God’s relationship to the world using the image of the world as the body of God. In his model, the cells of a body are independent individuals–not under the full control of the mind of the body, yet connected as parts of single body, influenced by the mind. So too, individuals in the world—human and other than human—are independent, yet interconnected in the body of God, influenced by and capable of being inspired by the divine wisdom. The divine body is the earth-body, but also the body of our universe and all other universes.
With process philosophy as a firm foundation, I fell confident that it is right to think not only about God or Goddess, but also about everything else in the world through the lens of change, relationship, freedom, and the interdependence in the web of life. The notion of Goddess or God’s power as persuading or inspiring but not coercing makes sense to me. The idea that God or Goddess is not in control of everything answers questions about evil. We may perceive death, disease, and natural phenomena such as earthquakes, volcanoes, and floods as evil, but in fact, they are among the conditions of life as it developed on our planet. We may ask why God or Goddess lets them happen, but in fact divinity did not create the evolutionary process; other individuals did, beginning with the atoms and parts of atoms that came together as they were swirling in space. The real evil in our world is created by human beings. The process worldview places the responsibility to change the world firmly in our hands.
*Hartshorne accepted the feminist criticism of male generic language and began to refer to God as He or She, though he never used the term Goddess.
Carol leads the life-transforming Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete (facebook and twitter)–early bird discount available for two more weeks only on the spring 2015. Her books include She Who Changes and and Rebirth of the Goddess and with Judith Plaskow, the widely-used anthologies Womanspirit Rising and Weaving the Visions and the forthcoming Goddess and God in the World: Conversations in Embodied Theology. Photo of Carol by Michael Bakas.