Introducing Process Philosophy with help from Gerunds
Forgot what gerunds are? They are nouns turned into verbs and verbs turned into nouns.
Here are some examples: swimming, grieving, dreaming, jogging, mourning, reading, forgiving, writing, weeping, dancing, hearing, singing, lamenting, playing, seeing, cooking, imagining, painting, sulking, gardening, regretting, running, suffering, hiking, enduring, drawing, isolating, knitting, struggling, baking, reminiscing, fishing, yearning, skiing, despairing, crafting, brooding, traveling, wailing, exploring, sobbing, aching, celebrating, hurting, cherishing, collapsing, rejoicing, and sleeping. They can be used as subjects of a sentence and as predicates: "Sleeping is beautiful" or "Beauty is in the Sleeping."
Process philosophy is a gerund philosophy. The word gerund does not have an adjectival form, but we can make one up. It is a gerundive philosophy. The basic point is that it sees all nouns as verbs. In a process context, we would turn all nouns into verbs and say that they are all connected to one another. God would be godding, cats would be catting, quarks would be quarking. Process philosophy is a philosophy of "-ing."
My wife tells me that I am a gerund: a noun who is a verb. I am not a static substance, she says, but an ongoing activity: thinking, feeling, breathing, imagining, hoping, remembering, deciding, and eating. She says that I am Jay ‘jaying.’ She is a gerund, too, and a lovable one at that. She is Kathy ‘kathying.’ We are gerunds married to one another: relational gerunds. Our activities emerge from our felt relations with one another and the world. We have been married for thirty-nine years now. We are gerunds in process. We are also ‘gerunding’ with our children and their families, our dogs, our garden, our extended family, our community, our church, and the larger world. None of these can be sharply separated. Our relations with the world, our family, the earth, and ourselves affect one another. We are always, in the words of Whitehead, the many becoming one. No gerund is an island.
I do not mean to suggest that all ‘gerunding’ is pretty or happy. There are many people in the world who suffer from terrible tragedies and traumas: diseases, acts of violence, injustices, and sometimes the effects of decisions they have made themselves. Animals, and plants too, suffer. We are all verbs, to be sure, but not always happy verbs. In process philosophy, everything is a gerund. Quarks, atoms, molecules, living cells, plants, animals, the earth, the moon, the solar system, stars, galaxies, clusters of galaxies—all are gerunds. All have subjectivity of one form or another, or are aggregates of things that have subjectivity. The universe is a vast and evolving network of gerunds. Not exactly a “community” of gerunds: there is violence as well as peace, sorrow as well as joy. But there is a kind of togetherness in it all: a solidarity, to use Whitehead’s term. No gerunds can be completely torn away from the others. The universe is a seamless web of gerunds.
Many gerunds last only for a moment, and some last for millions of years. But none last forever. Finitude is part of what it means to be a creaturely gerund. One gerund passes away and makes space for others, which likewise pass away. To live in a gerund-like world, we must make our peace with impermanence, learning to remember, but also to let go of, what is past when it is past.
I also do not mean to suggest that, in our gerund-like nature, we are entirely determined by other gerunds or, for that matter, that we entirely determine our own destinies. We are always shaped by other gerunds, physically and psychologically. Yet we carry within us self-creativity that determines how we respond to what shapes us. Self-creativity is at the heart of each gerund. Whitehead adds that other gerunds are also inside us, present in us, as part of our own natures, even as they transcend us. And we are inside them, too. Gerunds are immanent within each other and transcendent of one another: a network of inter-becoming.
Our universe includes past events that have lost their immediacy, an open future filled with possibilities both promising and dangerous. Are they gerunds, too? They are, but in a different way. Once an event occurs and becomes past, it can change in how we remember it, but it also retains its identity as a singular fact that cannot become other than what it is. Think of something you did in the past; you can frame it in different ways, but you cannot undo it. The past is like this. It is a gerund in the sense that it bristles and vibrates with its own unique identity, and it “gerunds” you in its way. In Whitehead’s language, it has “causal efficacy.” But it does not make decisions. It is what it is. It is a past gerund. Future gerunds are different. They, too, bristle and vibrate, but as potentialities which may or may not come to pass.
The universe is not only a network of actual gerunds; it is also a network of possible gerunds, not-yet-actualized possibilities, which are part of the very fabric of reality. The universe is not only a present actuality, but also a reservoir of potentiality. We need both wisdom and compassion: wisdom to discern the possibilities that are open to us at any moment and compassion to align ourselves with those that are most life-affirming, most just, and most loving.
* Process philosophers like Whitehead believe that the universe as a whole is a Gerund. The wholeness of the universe is not merely an assembly of other gerunds combined together. It unfolds as a subjective confluence of that assembly, a life, or consciousness wherein all gerunds exist, move, and have their being. Whitehead posits that this inclusive gerund aids in coordination but does not dictate the actions of other gerunds, ourselves included, and that we experience it, inter alia, as a lure towards creative becoming. When we experience ideals such as truth, goodness, and beauty, we are experiencing the cosmic gerund. And when we feel a sense that there is something in the universe that cares about each and all, with tenderness, we are also experiencing the cosmic gerund. This cosmic gerund is God.
This means that God is a verb, too, and like us, the divine verb has a life of its own. There is no need to conceive this life as outside the universe of gerunds. Picture a womb in which embryos unfold, or an ocean in which fish swim, or a sky in which clouds float. The womb, the ocean, and the sky are spacious containers for things that are becoming. And so it is with the divine Gerund. To say that it is a living whole is not to suggest that it is an object among objects in our mind’s eye. We never entirely grasp the whole, as we perpetually exist within it, encompassed by the inclusive context of our lives. We can pray to it, dance in its presence, and die in its embrace. It carries within its ongoing life the memory of each gerund and all gerunds, with tender care, weaving what happens into a larger tapestry, as best it can. Whitehead refers to this gerund as a 'Harmony of Harmonies' imbued with beauty, encompassing even tragic beauty.
Whitehead believes that the Harmony is beyond us but also within us: that the love in heaven is, in a way, recycled back and forth between Earth and Heaven. He puts it this way:
"The love of God for the world. It is the particular providence for particular occasions. What is done in the world is transformed into a reality in heaven, and the reality in heaven passes back into the world. By reason of this reciprocal relation, the love in the world passes into the love in heaven and floods back again into the world. In this sense, God is the great companion—the fellow-sufferer who understands." (Whitehead, Alfred North. Process and Reality)
The particular providence of which he speaks is what some process theologians call the lure of God in and for each occasion of experience. It acts as a lure toward the potential truth, goodness, and beauty inherent in the given situation. We might articulate that this luring presence is 'God gerunding,' but such phrasing might imply that God is one entity, and the gerunding is another, almost as if God preexists the luring.
In subject-predicate thinking, such language is unavoidable, but also deceptive, unless the gerund is used as what grammarians call a predicate nominative. It is not that the caller calls but rather the caller is in the calling, or the beckoner is in the beckoning. This means that when we attune ourselves to the beckoning within us toward truth, goodness, and beauty, we attune ourselves to God, who is present in the beckoning itself. The word "God" can be helpful, but is not necessary. The subject is in the predicate.
The philosopher Henri Bergson criticizes what he calls the “logic of solidity.” This “logic” perceives the presence of anything and everything by analogy to solid objects, with clearly demarcated boundaries, observed through the eyes by detached spectators. Process philosophers propose a gerundic alternative: experiencing the world by analogy to musical notes that are inherently temporal and have their identities in relation to other notes, before, after, and (in chords) simultaneously.
This perspective does not deny seeing. Rather, it affirms that even the entities we perceive with our eyes are dynamic and gerundive: music-like. Below are examples of gerunds, some of which we can see and some we cannot:
Individual animals (including human beings), each unique
Asteroids in the Asteroid Belt
Comets in the Kuiper Belt
Stars in the Milky Way galaxy
The Andromeda galaxy
Galaxies in the Virgo Supercluster
Forms of life that exist on other planets in other galaxies
The laws of electromagnetism and gravity
Numbers (including Pi) and Shapes
The Sacred Whole
All are dynamic in their ways, if not flowing through time then at least bristling with a kind of energetic vitality of their own.
Bergson and process philosophers present us with a way of thinking and perceiving that moves beyond the logic of solidity. They urge us to transcend the inherent limitations of viewing everything through the lens of solid objects and inviting us to embrace a more dynamic, relational, and fluid understanding of the world. This conceptual shift can enrich our perspective on the intricate interrelations of existence, allowing us to perceive the underlying harmonies of the cosmos, and prompting us to ponder our place within the larger unfolding the universe.
When we strive to become faithful instead of seeking to be a success, we imitate a God who kenotically meets us where we are and then invites us onward and upward, rather than a God who tells us that if we just do this or that, then we will be perfect enough to meet the divine. This is a God that I can take seriously because it is a God who is trouble for assholes. This is a God who is trouble for our pretensions to certainty. This is a God who is unimpressed by our bank accounts, our Instagram followers, our degrees, and, yes, even our religious “holiness.” This is a God who goes fishing and invites us to grab our rod and come along.