Affirming Divine Omnipotence in Islamic Process Theology
Jared Morningstar's Proposal
This page is not a scholarly response to Jared Morningstar's excellent and scholarly paper, "Exploring the Problems & Promises of an Islamic Process Theology." Instead, it is a summary of his paper for the general reader, provided by ChatGPT, along with a series of impressions offered by me. I have read his paper thoroughly but find that ChatGPT summarizes it better than I can. My basic intent is to affirm his project and, through my questions, explain why I can't go along with the type of omnipotence he highlights. At the end of this summary, I raise three questions I hope he might consider. I encourage you to read his paper for yourself rather than relying on the summary, but I offer it (with help from ChatGPT) for those unable to do so.
"Taking all these resources together, Islamic process thinkers have a strong foundation for developing a theology which achieves many of the aims of the process thinkers of other faiths, all while preserving a certain vision of omnipotence that is deeply ingrained within the very fabric of the tradition in its most basic sources." (Jared Morningstar)
The process theological tradition, from Whitehead to contemporary thinkers, rejects the traditional concept of divine omnipotence, primarily in response to the problem of evil. Process theologians emphasize God's goodness and relationality, arguing that these can be better maintained by renouncing traditional omnipotence. This perspective has primarily developed within Protestant Christianity but is now emerging in other religious traditions, including Islam.
Islamic process theology, influenced by figures like Muhammad Iqbal, takes a different approach than Christian process theology. While Christian process theologians often reject divine omnipotence entirely, Islamic process theologians are likely to retain it due to its centrality in Quranic theology. However, they may qualify it, emphasizing God's relational power and compassionate nature.
Islamic process theology draws on the Quran's emphasis on God's attributes, particularly compassion and mercy, to frame God's power as always related to these qualities, avoiding a coercive view of omnipotence. This perspective aligns with the Muʿtazila school of Islamic thought, which argued that God's acts are qualified by His essence and that God commands what is good because it is good.
Furthermore, Islamic process theology sees creation as a logical extension of God's nature, emphasizing theophany in all aspects of existence. This perspective allows for a theodicy where even tragedies and evil serve a purpose in human spiritual development, aligning with the Quranic concept of humans as the perfected creation that fully realizes God's qualities. Islamic process thinkers can also draw on the concept of wujūd (existence) as the act of existing, challenging traditional substance metaphysics. Sufi mystics, influenced by figures like Ibn 'Arabi, promote waḥdat al-wujūd (the unity of existence), a non-dual but dynamic monism that provides a foundation for Islamic process theology. In summary, Islamic process theology retains divine omnipotence while emphasizing God's compassionate and merciful nature. It views creation as a theophanic extension of God's essence and sees tragedies as part of a larger spiritual development plan for humanity. This approach aligns with Quranic principles and offers a unique perspective within the broader process theological tradition.
Impressions and Three Questions
by Jay McDaniel
Can a Muslim affirm divine omnipotence and be a process thinker, too? This is the question raised by Jared Morningstar in "Exploring the Problems and Possibilities of an Islamic Process Theology?" His answer is Yes. My answer, as a Christian process theologian is also Yes. I think it is a mistake to limit process theology to a distinctive and controversial view of God or, for that matter, to belief in God at all.
Process theology is an outlook on life that emphasizes the mutual becoming of all things, the intrinsic value of every living being, a creativity inherent in the universe, the primacy of beauty in the universe and human life, the importance of compassion, and the calling to build communities that are creative, compassionate, participatory, humane to animals, and good for the Earth, with no one left behind. It also affirms the moment-by-moment nature of human life, emphasizing that the "self" is not a solid substance enduring change over time but rather an ongoing process capable of growth and change over time. And it affirms that each moment inherits from the past through conscious and unconscious memories, and contributes to the future positively or negatively. All of these are ideas important to process thinkers. They are, to use Morningstar's language, the "aims of the process thinkers." A person can share these ideas, and try to live them out in daily life, without accepting the idea that God is not all-powerful and without finding the idea of God meaningful. They can be, like Robert Mesle, non-theistic process theologians.
Moreover, many process theologians, focused on the content of our understandings of God, sometimes overstate the role of those concepts in our lives, speaking as if our actions in the world and our feelings about the world have a one-to-one relation to those concepts when, in fact, the concepts function in light of many other factors: a person's personal biography and social context, for example. A given concept of God as omnipotent, however understood, can function to foster a process-relational outlook on life in one context and to inhibit that approach in another.
Truth be told, many Christian process theologians come from Protestant and evangelical backgrounds. They have been raised with an image of God as a bully in the sky, and they understandably seek to deconstruct it. But other Christians from different backgrounds have also been influenced by images of omnipotence, albeit not in such a destructive way. Their version of omnipotence, I would say, is of a softer type. Let's call it "soft omnipotence." The key is not simply to ask about the content of a concept but how it functions in a person's life relative to their context.
I myself am a theist. I find the idea of God very meaningful and want to live my life with God as my center. The idea of a universe without God does not really make sense to me. . I find myself wanting to affirm an idea of relational omnipotence as developed by Farhan Shah in Islam and Divine Omnipotence: A Relational Approach. I am a Christian, and what he says makes good sense to me. I think Christians and Muslims alike can understand God's omnipotence in relational terms, as infinite guidance and infinite compassion, not infinite control. Still, I don't think all Christians need to think as I think or as Shah thinks. In the world of process theology there can be different notions of God and, as I said, no notion of God.
In "Twenty Key Ideas of Process Thought," I have identified twenty of these ideas, which include familiar concepts such as "all things are interconnected," "all living beings have intrinsic value," and "the actual world is a process of becoming."
Two of the ideas in my list pertain to God. One portrays God as an inclusive and loving Consciousness in whose presence the universe lives, moves, and has its being; the other emphasizes that a healthy life includes faith in this Consciousness. In this regard, I am influenced by Whitehead's understanding of God in Part V of "Process and Reality," particularly his concept of the consequent nature of God.
The fact that God and faith are two of the twenty key ideas implies that a person can embrace many of the other eighteen ideas while holding different beliefs about what process thinkers typically say about God. For instance, a Buddhist might agree with the three ideas mentioned above but not believe in God at all, while a Muslim might similarly agree but offer an alternative view of God. One such alternative is explored by Jared Morningstar in "The Problems and Promises of an Islamic Process Theology." Click here to read his paper, or scroll down for a summary.
Morningstar offers an alternative to Shah's point of view. He suggests that an Islamic Process Theology can affirm, rather than reject, a less relational and more traditional understanding of divine omnipotence as a controlling power. He knows that many Christian and Jewish process theologians reject omnipotence, as least as they understand it. He also recognizes that, within Christianity, Christian process theologians, especially Protestants, sometimes portray omnipotence in terms of an external deity distinct from the planet and life itself. This does not represent the entirety of the Christian tradition, especially those who view God as Being Itself rather than a being among beings, and who understand Being Itself as an activity, The divine reality is Pure Act, Pure Event, and not an entity or a “thing.” An Islamic notion of omnipotence aligns more closely with the tradition of God as Being Itself, drawing from traditional Islamic sources, notably the Holy Qur'an. It can be developed based on the understanding that the divine reality is the source of all that exists, rejecting images of God as an external creator who stands outside of creation and judges from afar. Instead, the divine reality is best imagined as an unfathomable source, a creative abyss from which all things emerge.
This emergence is unique, as it seems to involve a hint of agency within the world itself. The plurality or multiplicity of entities in the world (universe) participate in the divine reality, sharing the qualities or names that reside within the divine heart. However, this participation does not appear to be a freely chosen act among alternatives, as if these entities could choose otherwise. Somehow, even their participation is subject to the control of the divine reality. Morningstar writes:
While all of this dynamic creative process is fundamentally under the control of God, since it is none other than the process of God’s Nature revealing itself, there can be no coercive power at work, as ultimately there is no self and other, no compeller and compelled is distinct from one another from this perspective. Here, an option for solving the problem of evil is that for the Unity (Tawḥīd) of God to truly be actualized, there must necessarily also be multiplicity, for a unity which is merely an undifferentiated singularity does not really have the same degree of integration as a unity which is united in the midst of multiplicity, or even through multiplicity. (Jared Morningstar)
The question is: Who or what actualizes the multiplicity? Who or what makes the decision that there be many happenings in the universe, and that there not simply be the one divine Event. As I read Morningstar, the answer is God.
The good news, he adds, is that this divine reality can be trusted and, perhaps, even loved because at its core lies mercy and compassion. Consequently, whatever occurs in the world, even if it appears tragic, is considered the self-expression of the divine reality and thus a theophany:
Islamic process theology has the benefit of being able to understand God’s power as always related to God’s Compassion and Mercy, offering a bulwark against a kind of theology of coercive power that process thinkers seek to dismantle. (Jared Morningstar)
Whitehead grappled with this issue himself in "Process and Reality." At one point, he contemplated the idea that the entire universe might be an expression of a single ultimate reality, more actual than the universe itself, which he called "Creativity." He acknowledged that Creativity was neither inherently good nor evil but expressed in all things. Ultimately, he decided against this perspective, associated with Spinoza, in favor of the idea that Creativity is actual by virtue of its expressions, not apart from them. He then proposed that each actual entity in the universe is "self-creative." He referred to God as the primordial expression of creativity, but not the sole expression. God is self-creative, and so are events in the world. This allowed Whitehead to suggest in Part V that God is a loving presence throughout the universe, affected by all that happens (consequent nature) and yet providing fresh possibilities (initial aims) for healing, wholeness, and creativity. In this sense, God becomes a fellow sufferer who understands.
To be sure, Whitehead also spoke of another aspect of God, the primordial nature, which transcends time and space and contains all potentialities that the universe can actualize. This aspect of God aligns more closely with Morningstar's reference to God. However, even in this perspective, God is not the source of everything that happens. God is a being among all beings, albeit much more powerful, wise, and, when the consequent nature is considered, compassionate.
Morningstar's essay suggests that this image of God may not be meaningful or available to the vast majority of Muslims. Many Muslims feel a sense of personal relatedness with God, combining this sense with awe and wonder, implying a kind of transcendence and majesty that is underemphasized in Whitehead's and many other Christian process theologians' perspectives. Perhaps an Islamic Process Theology, along the lines of what Morningstar develops, can be more meaningful to Muslims than the kind I advocate, which resembles the perspective of another Muslim thinker, Farhan Shah.
So, multiplicity is a logical extension of the Divine Nature, but multiplicity also implies the conflict between different actually existing things. As such, there will be moments of tragedy, or specifically in the case of human beings, genuine evil. But now even what appears to us human beings as tragedy takes on a theophanic character — some mystical Divine disclosure is happening in instances of death, or through hurricanes, or in the case of terrible genetic disorders. What are the natures of these disclosures? This is something which is likely veiled for the large majority of people, as the degree of intimacy required with these things in order to reveal their innermost reality would likely be psychologically and spiritually devastating except in the case of a saintly person who has already prepared themselves for annihilation (fanāʾ) on the spiritual path. So, it is ultimately a mercy that such things are veiled and that tragedy primarily presents itself as shrouded in mystery. (Jared Morningstar)
In light of this paragraph, I pose the following questions to Morningstar as starting points for further conversation:
Evil and Multiplicity: How and why does multiplicity imply conflict? While conflict is one way that different actualities can interact, cooperation is another possibility. Would it not be more accurate to say that multiplicity sets the stage for potential conflict, but that conflict itself results from the independent decisions of actual entities rather than being the direct will of God?
Evil as Apparent: If the tragedies that arise from conflict - such as hurricanes, genetic diseases, untimely deaths, and, I would add, wars and violence - are considered mystical divine disclosures and, in some sense, fundamentally under the control of God, should they be classified as "genuine" evil, or are they more accurately described as "apparent" evil, albeit concealed from the understanding of the majority of people?
Tragedy and Contingency: Morningstar writes that creation is a logical extension of God's nature and implies that it is also an existential extension of God's nature. Does this mean that everything that happens is "meant to be." What is the place for contingency in this vision? Do some things happen that could have been otherwise?
These are the kinds of questions I would also ask Christian friends who embrace similar points of view. My aim is not really to convince or convert, but to share my questions hoping that, out of a creative interchange, more understanding and new insights can emerge. That's process theology, too.