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Panentheistic Interconnectedness: On the Revival of Metaphysics in A. N. Whitehead and P. Teilhard de Chardin

The objective of this study is to examine the innovative ideas on cosmic interconnectedness in the metaphysical theories of Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947) and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955). Responding to the developments in the science of their times, these two thinkers revive metaphysics in the early part of the twentieth century by highlighting the notion of cosmic interconnectedness as well as stressing the need to think of it in terms of a divine origin. These are the two most elaborate versions of process theism currently developed. Despite their different outlooks, this study attempts to show that their metaphysical views can be subjected to an in-depth analysis in order to deepen our understanding of panentheism, the theory that the world is in God. The overall goal is a critical appreciation of the comparative strengths and weaknesses of each.

The starting point of this study is that, for reviving metaphysics, Whitehead and Teilhard were largely inspired by the celebrated writings of Henri Bergson. In this sense, Bergson is both the starting point and the meeting point for the two thinkers.

Whitehead has some obvious kinship to Bergson regarding the metaphysical ideas such as process and creativity, the immanence of the past in the present, and the human intellect. However, Whitehead offers a novel understanding of these metaphysical ideas which differs drastically from Bergson’s view. Thus, in Process and Reality (1925, 1978) he develops the philosophy of organism, as he calls it, in which cosmic interrelatedness stands out very prominently, particularly on the microcosmic level.

Teilhard, obviously, is indebted to Bergson for the metaphysical views on matter, life and energy from the latter’s interpretation of evolution in Creative Evolution. Though for Bergson evolution is driven by vital force (élan vital), its expansion is without any ultimate purpose. Teilhard, however, eventually disagrees with Bergson regarding the direction of the evolving universe. Teilhard maintains that the evolving cosmic process is directed towards God, the Omega Point. Thus, in The Human Phenomenon (1959, 1999) he crafts the philosophy of Christian pantheism, as he calls it, in which cosmic interconnectedness becomes prominent, particularly on the macrocosmic level.

However, in highlighting cosmic interconnectedness, both Whitehead and Teilhard are confronted with the age-old problem of the God-world relationship. They come up with divergent solutions to this problem. Whereas Whitehead, through his notion of ‘dipolarity,’ seeks to establish a disjointed interrelatedness between God and the world, Teilhard, through the image of ‘pleroma,’ stresses the close union between God and the world. Both approaches, in my opinion, have their limitations. In both of them, there is a danger of diminishing or blurring the very interconnectedness between God and the world which they promise to make intelligible: in Whitehead, it is by disjoining them by dipolarity; and in Teilhard, it is by merging them too closely together in the pleroma. In addition, the study points out that both approaches cannot sufficiently address the problem of evil. In Teilhard’s approach, in which God creates by uniting, it becomes hard to explain how God can allow evil to happen. Though Whitehead has a satisfactory theory of divine persuasion, God appears to be ineffective in addressing the problem of evil.

To overcome at least some of the above limitations in Teilhard and Whitehead, this study offers a charitable reading of the God-world relationship in terms of  panentheism. In simple words, panentheism is a theory which states that though the world is ‘in God,’ God and the world are ontologically distinct, and the Being of God transcends the world. Thus, this study re-describes Whitehead’s understanding of the interrelatedness of God and the world as ‘dipolar panentheism’ and Teilhard’s view of the union between God and the world as ‘differentiated panentheism.’

Nevertheless, in presenting the panentheistic understanding of the God-world relationship in Teilhard and Whitehead, it becomes clear that these two are different and incompatible versions of process theism. To this effect, while differentiated panentheism thinks of God and the world in terms of ‘difference-in-unity’, dipolar panentheism does so in terms of ‘unity-in-difference.’ In other words, with his idea of the directedness of the cosmic process towards an ultimate union of the collective consciousnesses with the divine, Teilhard indeed seeks to establish the unity of God and the world. Conversely, in his view of God and the world as contrasted opposites creatively advancing forever, Whitehead establishes the eternal difference between God and the world which is crucial for his version of panentheism. In this sense, differentiated and dipolar panentheisms provide two alternative pictures of a metaphysics of process theism. These two, in my view, are the only process theistic approaches that we currently have which fill the theological gap in Bergson’s project of reviving metaphysics.

Date:18 Sep 2014  →  18 Sep 2019
Keywords:Process Metaphysics, Panentheism, A N Whitehead, P Teilhard de Chardin
Disciplines:Philosophy
Project type:PhD project