The World: Body of God or Field of Cosmic Activity?

  • Joseph Bracken
Part of the Studies in Philosophy and Religion book series (STPAR, volume 12)


Certainly one of the more widely quoted and therefore influential articles written by Charles Hartshorne in the course of his illustrious career has been “The Compound Individual,” originally composed for a Festschrift in honor of Alfred North Whitehead in 1936.1 Therein Hartshorne reviewed the history of Western metaphysics on the key issue of substance or individuality and concluded that Whitehead alone had found a way to explain how organisms can be composed of much smaller entities (e.g., cells or, smaller yet, atoms) and still exist as functioning individuals in their own right. Organisms are colonies or societies of actual occasions “interlocked with other such individuals into societies of societies” so as to constitute the macroscopic realities of common sense experience.2 Some of these structured societies, to be sure, do not possess a dominant subsociety which coordinates the activities of all the other subsocieties. But all higher-order animal species with central nervous system and brain clearly do give evidence of the presence and activity of a dominant subsociety of actual occasions to unify and coordinate bodily functions. Moreover, says Hartshorne at the end of the article, the God-world relationship may be explained in similar fashion. That is, God and the world are a compound individual, with God acting as the mind or soul of the world, and the world as the body of God. Thus, just as cells within the human body are substantial entities in their own right and yet under the direction of the soul make up a single macroscopic individual, so human beings and all other finite entities under God’s unifying activity make up a single cosmic organism at any given moment.


Actual Entity Collective Agency Unify Field Actual Occasion Structure Society 
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  1. 1.
    Charles Hartshorne, “The Compound Individual,” Philosophical Essays for Alfred North Whitehead (New York: Russell & Russell, 1936).Google Scholar
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    Ibid., p.211.Google Scholar
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    Charles Hartshorne, Man’s Vision of God and the Logic of Theism, 2nd ed. (Hamden, CN: Archon Books, 1964), pp. 174–211. Still another extended exposition of this idea is to be found in The Logic of Perfection and Other Essays in Neoclassical Metaphysics (La Salle, IL: Open Court Publ. House, 1962), pp. 191–215.Google Scholar
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    Hartshorne himself seems to endorse such a modalist conception of the Trinity in the Epilogue to Man’s Vision of God,pp. 351–52.Google Scholar
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    Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality,David Griffin & Donald Sherburne (eds.) (New York: The Free Press, 1978), p. 89 (137). N.B.: The number in parentheses corresponds to the pagination of the original edition of Process and Reality published in 1927, also by Macmillan.Google Scholar
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    Hartshorne, art. cit., p. 215: “The dualism of common sense is due to thinking of composites as more unified and individual than their parts, whereas the reverse is true. A stone is better interpreted as a colony of swirls of atoms (crystals) than are its atoms interpretable as servants or organs of the stone. The atoms and crystals are the substances, the stone-properties, the accidents.”Google Scholar
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    Whitehead, op. cit., p. 89 (137). Cf. also on this point Dorothy M. Emmet, Whitehead’s Philosophy of Organism (London: Macmillan & Co., 1932), pp. 174–219. Emmet speaks of the “interaction between the character of individual actual entities and the character of the society in which they find themselves” (ibid., p. 212) in such a way that for her, too, the society is a functioning totality.Google Scholar
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    Ibid., pp. 108–09 (166). Cf. also on this point Whitehead’s later works: Adventures of Ideas (New York: Free Press Paperback, 1967), pp. 207–08; Modes of Thought (New York: Free Press Paperback, 1968), pp. 163–64.Google Scholar
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    The fact that Whitehead allows for the possibility of several “living persons” within the animal body either successively or even simultaneously (cf. Process and Reality, p. 107 [164]) is still further evidence that for him the organism as a whole is the ultimate ontological agent.Google Scholar
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    Cf. The Triune Symbol: Persons, Process and Community (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1985), esp. pp. 36–47. Cf. also “Process Philosophy and Trinitarian Theology - I & II,” Process Studies 8 (1978), 217–30, and 11 (1981), 83–96.Google Scholar
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    The traditional divine names are set in quotation marks to indicate their purely metaphorical, non-sexist use in this article.Google Scholar
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    Whitehead, op. cit., p. 88 (135): “The ‘superjective nature’ of God is the character of the pragmatic value of his specific satisfaction qualifying the transcendent creativity in the various temporal instances.”Google Scholar
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    It would be beyond the scope of the present article to indicate in detail how this field-oriented approach to the God-world relationship might be compatible with the reflections of Bernard Meland and Bernard Loomer on the reality of God in a process-relational world. Both of them are reluctant to ascribe personality to God, but instead think of God as somehow identified with the totality of the world process (cf., e.g., Bernard E. Meland, Fallible Forms and Symbols: Discourses on Method in a Theology of Culture [Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1976], pp. 150–152; Bernard M. Loomer, “The Size of God,” in The Size of God: The Theology of Bernard Loomer in Context, William Dean and Larry E. Axel (eds.) [Macon, GA: Mercer Univ. Press, 1987], pp. 41–42.) Presumably they are objecting (at least, in part) to the notion of an unipersonal God who, as Hartshorne suggests, is the soul of the world; for, the world is then incomplete without God as its transcendent unifying principle. Within the trinitarian model of the God-world relationship, however, finite actual entities constitute from moment to moment a field of activity proper to themselves. Moreover, while this field of activity is indeed situated within the field of activity proper to the divine persons, the influence of those same divine persons on their creatures, being all pervasive, is not readily detected except through the eyes of faith. Phenomenologically, therefore, one should not expect to experience the presence and activity of the divine persons as more than “Creative Passage” or “the ultimate mystery inherent within existence itself.”Google Scholar
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    Cf. above, n. 25.Google Scholar
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    Cf., e.g., Illtyd Trethowan, Process Theology and the Christian Tradition: An Essay in Post Vatican II Thinking (Stiliriver, MA: St. Bede’s Publications, 1985). Trethowan illustrates quite well the tendency among many Roman Catholics familiar with process-relational metaphysics to use process-oriented language in describing the God of AristotelianThomistic metaphysics. In my judgment, this will not work any better than the opposite tendency of Whiteheadians to use trinitarian language in describing the different functions of the Whiteheadian God. One has to synthesize both traditions through the creation of a third position which represents something genuinely new both for Trinitarian theology and for process-relational metaphysics. Aquinas seems to have done something similar in the thirteenth century when he synthesized a basically Platonic understanding of Christian doctrine with Aristotelian metaphysics. The result was something new, namely, Thomism, which was inevitably looked upon as heretical by more `orthodox” theologians of his own day. At the same time, it is not pure Aristotelianism since Aristotle did not employ the category of existence nor suggest that the ultimate instantiation of potency and act is the relation of essence to existence. This insight for Thomas presumably came out of his reflection on the Christian tradition, in particular, the received interpretation of Exodus 3/14.Google Scholar
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    Cf., e.g., Lewis S. Ford, The Lure of God: A Biblical Background for Process Theism (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1978), pp. 99–111. By his own admission, Ford seems to have moved away in recent years from the metaphysical position taken in this chapter.Google Scholar
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    Cf. Chapter VIII of a new book, Spirit and Society, now in preparation, in which I show how the three divine persons and all their creatures co-constitute an ever-expanding cosmic society.Google Scholar

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© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 1990

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  • Joseph Bracken

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