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God ‘The Fellow-Sufferer who Understands’

This famous quote about God is found in the American philosopher A.N.Whitehead’s 1927 Gifford Lectures, published as Process and Reality - his effort to generate a radically new metaphysics which would unify the way we understand the world. See process metaphysics.

In the last chapter of Process and Reality Whitehead turns his attention to God, and develops his concept of a dipolar deity. By this is meant that God, who in strict process thought is one entity among others - not ontologically distinct from the rest of the cosmos, is a) affected by the experience of all other entities (God’s ‘consequent’ nature) and b) constant in character as the ground of both of order and of novelty (God’s ‘primordial’ nature). This formulation of the character of God in terms of two types of attribute in tension - responsiveness and constancy - is known as ‘dipolarity’ (sometimes ‘bipolarity’).

Charles Hartshorne, the greatest theological exponent of process thought, developed a somewhat different form of dipolarity. For Hartshorne God is both necessary being in himself, God’s ‘abstract’ pole, but contingent in the particular relationships into which God enters with contingent creation, God’s ‘concrete’ pole. This is a very helpful way of overcoming some of the intrinsic paradoxes of theism.See Pailin, 1989, Ch.4. Keith Ward wants to propose a different type of theism [see God, Humanity and the Cosmos, ed. C Southgate (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1999) pp224-25], but sees clearly the helpfulness...Dipolarity, then, allows God to be responsive to the world and yet remain God. The emphasis in process models of God is on a God who experiences the world’s pain and struggle, and persuades it towards paths of creativity and fulfilment. In Whitehead’s famous phrase God is the ‘fellow-sufferer who understands’.

To investigate how this model of God might enable theology to respond to the problem of suffering and evil see Process theology and the problem of evil.

Email link | Feedback | Contributed by: Dr. Christopher Southgate
Source: God, Humanity and the Cosmos  (T&T Clark, 1999)

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