Emergence and Emanation: On the Coherence of both Process and Neoplatonic Cosmologies
I’m connected to a great deal of deeply traditionalist religious thinkers online who often casually dismiss forms of process-relational theology as crudely heterodox and presenting a picture of Divinity that sacrifices all forms of ultimacy and glory, presenting instead a fully passible God who becomes merely a being among the many other beings of creation — a supreme being, but not the “ground of being” or Being itself as in classical forms of theism.
I think there’s a number of reasons for this perception, and I empathize with how one could come to such conclusions as a result, but I think ultimately this is a caricature of the richness, depth, and breadth of process thinking.
I think much of this perception comes from the prominence of process critiques of divine omnipotence as traditionally understood. My classical theist friends have other ways of grappling with theodicy which preserve a vision of God’s ultimate power, many of which I find very convincing. Much of this comes down to differing contexts, with the process thinking on this issue developing in context of modern Protestant and Evangelical theologies, whereas the current zeitgeist (at least from my position) has much more of an emphasis on older forms of theology and metaphysics, particularly Neoplatonic emanationist thinking that can be found in the Church Fathers east and west, major Islamic and Christian mystics, and many important Jewish theologians and philosophers as well.
As a response to an already somewhat decadent late modern Protestant theology, the process critique of omnipotence is certainly a correction. Here, the Essence of the Divine Nature as Love or Compassion is reasserted against a God-concept that developed out of theologies of empire, with God as the all-powerful tyrant forcefully enacting His will on creation from the outside.
Yet the Neoplatonist-Traditionalist would likewise reject this same theology, as it is drawing too stark of distinctions between God and creation and disconnecting the Divine Will from the Divine Nature which is fundamentally oriented towards Grace, reconciliation, justification, etc.
In truth, both process and Neoplatonic theologies take a very panentheistic turn in their more substantive articulations. The two-worlds cosmology of Nature and Supernature is rejected — by the Neoplatonist through a much more complex ontology that includes continuous divine, spiritual, imaginal, and corporeal realms that gives a vision of Divine emanation which avoids the trappings of a theology that positions God and creation against one another, with the relationship being characterized by God’s exercise of Divine Will over Creation. Instead, creation, across all levels of this cosmology, is merely the manifestation of the Divine Nature under different conditions of existentiation — allowing God to be known through myriad manifest creatures who each participate in this Divine Reality in unique proportions. Beautiful!
Process thinkers reject this two-worlds cosmology in a somewhat different way. If the traditional Neoplatonist theology is emanationist, process thought comes down more on the emergentist side of things. Here, rather than a transcendent God whose reality is emanating out, differentiating itself to ever-greater forms of theophany, we find a God whose relationship with actuality is one of creative collaboration, offering up pure potentialities to all created things in every moment, and allowing the process of self-becoming to precede in a very democratic fashion.
The process-emergentist approach is able to answer a particular question more readily than the Neoplatonic-emanationist theology: namely, what of the cases when there is genuine conflict between the self-becoming of various created beings? For the process theologian, God offers the best possibilities for becoming to each creature, but does not forcefully interfere in what will actually manifest in the next moment. For to do so would be to violently instrumentalize the existence of one created being in service of the wellbeing another created being. Would an all compassionate God truly act in such a way, crudely playing favorites? As Christ proclaims in the Sermon on the Mount, “He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matthew 5:45).
The Neoplatonist is in a position where an account must be given for why such conflicts between various aspects of God’s self-manifestation arise in the first place — a very sticky theological question, to be sure, though of course there are convincing responses which have been given by various thinkers within this tradition. Yet the process position, which begins with the presupposition that the Divine Nature, out of it’s abundant Grace towards all of creation, does not instrumentalize the existence of any created being, provides a somewhat more straightforward account of this issue.
In the highest articulations of either of these traditions of metaphysics, one finds elements of the other position that counter-balance the excesses of over-emphasis on either emanation or emergence—such as Neoplatonic visions of how the various created things, through their self-development towards a Divine-given telos, actually contribute constructively to the very Being of God, or process perspectives on how God’s offering of Pure Potentialities in every moment propels the becoming of reality as a whole towards an actualization which is an epiphany of Divine Compassion.
To off-handedly reject either cosmologies of emergence or emanation can well lead to blindspots in ones theology that in turn can make the Divine Reality seem absurd in the face of certain difficult questions. Ultimately, I think there is an esoteric non-duality between these two seemingly oppositional cosmological visions. I think deeper dialogue between these positions can help further actualize the double-exposure of emergence and emanation — a metaphysical perspective which I think has great potential for our contemporary moment.
May we continue to be brought into greater insight on these topics, and may we be effective and compassionate stewards of our various traditions. I’m certainly banking on a metamodern process-relational Neoplatonic emergentist-emanationist vision for the future.