Process Theologian Dr. John B. Cobb Jr. helps to clarify core tenet of Jordanic Derivism

by Frank L. Jordan III

I was thrilled to have a conversation via email with Dr. John Cobb a while back regarding Jordanic derivism. Some of his comments really helped to clarify a core tenet of my philosophy. I would like to share that conversation with you now.

Dr. Cobb: Thank you for your book. I agree that your profound struggle to understand God and the world and the reality of evil have brought you to a path very like that of process theology. I congratulate you for finding it on your own. I welcome you to our community or to consider yourself a fellow traveler if you prefer that.

What gives poignancy and power to your thinking is the way it has come out of your personal suffering and joy. Thank you for sharing that.

Me: You are more than welcome for the book, Dr. Cobb. Thank you for the kind words. I found your comments very encouraging. Yes, I would very much like to consider myself part of your community. I know that my philosophy differs in some ways from process theology proper (i.e., retaining the traditional belief that Jesus was always the Incarnation instead of the belief that he became the Christ), but I’m certain all process thinkers don’t necessarily agree on this.

I was interested, though, in your opinion on my understanding that the fundamental realities of the universe – the chemical elements, light, gravity, electromagnetism, and the laws that govern them all – derive directly from God and therefore have to be what they are, that it is essential that they be what they are, and that this plays into the development of the universe throughout all time. Have you ever encountered an axiom like this before?

When I first realized this, it had an amazingly positive effect on me. For me, it was like I had discovered a missing piece to the cosmic puzzle! It became a springboard for much of my thinking that followed. But I do realize that what affects one person very deeply might not have much, if any, impact on others. However, I am curious about whether anyone else in your knowledge has ever arrived at a similar understanding.

Thank you for your time, and I look forward to your comments.

Dr. Cobb: The question of “have to be” is itself ambiguous. There is much talk these days about the “fine-tuning” of the universe. The basic laws of nature or “constants” have to be what they are if there is to be life in the universe. I was not sure whether this was your meaning or that there is some inherent necessity. The former view, often called the “anthropic principle” is for me a strong reason for positing an act of God as establishing the fundamental order of things. If there is some other kind of necessity, this may no longer be the case.

Me: My meaning is that there is an inherent necessity that the basic realities of the universe be what they are, similar to the understanding that it is an inherent necessity that God’s power be persuasive and not coercive. For instance, if you imagine a chemical element – maybe call it Saturnium – it could never in actuality ever really exist, because it is an imagined element, even for God. It is not a reality that derives from God, who is the Ultimate Reality. On the other hand, real natural elements inherently have to be what they are. The quality of “realness” that they are imbued with is a unique quality that is derived from God and God alone. It is also a quality that helps to enable these natural realities to resist the full influence of God’s power, thus setting the stage for the development of the universe over time – as an unfolding manifestation of God, a collaboration of nature with God.

Does this inherent necessity somehow undermine the position that the fundamental order of things was and is established by an act of God? For me, the answer is both yes and no. Yes, because if the basic realities of the universe are derived directly from God, and even God isn’t free to choose them to be something outside of his/her reality, then the idea that God “fine-tuned” the universe to support life implies that God can bend the actual laws that derive directly from God’s Reality. And no, because the initial manifestation of these natural realities is the original “act of God as establishing the fundamental order of things”. What is understood as God fine-tuning the universe can now be expanded to include God bringing into existence all of the natural realities that derive directly from him/her in the first place.

Even though I’ve tried to articulate the subtleties of this philosophy of derivism in my book, I understand it when you say you’re not sure what I meant. My daughter once told me, “But Dad, that’s like saying a chair is a chair because it has to be a chair!” I appreciate you asking me what I meant by “have to be” and including the phase “or that there is some inherent necessity” in your response. I think I’ll use the phrase “an inherent necessity that” as well as “essential that” in the future to explain my views.

(End of conversation)

It had not occurred to me that derivism’s tenet of manifestation – that the fundamental realities of the universe have to be what they are because they derive from God, who is the Ultimate Reality – could be confused with the anthropic principle. But it stands to reason that it would be. The anthropic principle is the main context in which the idea that the universe “has to be what it is” is currently used in philosophical discussions. However, the context in which this idea is used in derivism is something different. That context is that it is inherently necessary that the fundamental realities of the universe be what they intrinsically are because they derive from the Ultimate Reality of God. They could be no other way.

I hope this clarification is of some use to you when considering the philosophy of Jordanic derivism.