Panentheism.  Revisionism.  Anarchocapitalism.


David Ray Griffin

[link to CV]


Essays by Me

Essays by Others

From Jewish Theology and Process Thought, edited by Sandra B. Lubarsky and David Ray Griffin, Albany: The State University of New York Press, 1996, Chapter 7, 95-125

Process Theodicy, Christology, and the Imitatio Dei

David Ray Griffin


I. Process Theodicy

II. Process Christology

II. The Imitatio Dei [and Notes]


The central religious question is whether there is a Holy Reality, meaning a reality that is worthy of worship with one’s entire being, to which one’s life can rightfully be committed without reserve.  According to the biblical perspective, there is a Holy Reality: a God who created the world and is providentially active in it.  From this perspective, the apparent evil in the world can become a theological problem, because this apparent evil, if taken to be genuinely evil, can be regarded as falsifying God’s total goodness and thereby God’s worthiness of worship.  For many people, the Holocaust was an evil that cannot be rationalized as merely apparent evil.  It was, in fact, an evil so great as to provide the ultimate challenge to belief in a Holy Reality creative of and providentially active in the world.  The task of theodicy for Jews and Christians (and other theists) is to try to meet that challenge.  The question of this essay is whether the process theology based on the philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead and Charles Hartshorne can produce a theodicy that is adequate to the basic beliefs of Jewish and Christian faith and is credible in the light of the enormity of evil in the world, especially the Holocaust.

As well as intensifying this theoretical problem of evil, which theodicies try to solve, the Holocaust brings to consciousness another problem for Christian faith.  Christianity teaches that God is loving and just, and that we are to worship God by developing the kinds of virtues befitting those who believe in such a Holy Reality.  One of the best-known lists of these virtues includes love, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23).  When one reads the history of the Christian treatment of Jews, however, these virtues hardly leap off the page.  The way blacks and Native Americans have been treated by white Christians in the United States is also not a pretty tale.  Whether or not one sees the Holocaust as exceeding previous atrocities qualitatively, it poignantly raises the question of Christian faith’s practical value.1 For, as has been pointed out many times, the Nazis could draw on Christian writings and precedent for much of their propaganda and practice.  And, even if it could be maintained that the perpetrators of the Holocaust were no longer Christian, the fact remains that they were rather immediately post-Christian: One would expect that the virtues instilled by Christianity would still be quite dominant.  From this perspective, the Holocaust constitutes an overwhelming indictment of Christianity, especially in the light of the prior and later atrocities committed by those in countries in which Christianity has been the dominant form of religion.

Sometimes indictments of Christianity in terms of its practical fruits seem to presuppose a view of the “natural goodness” of human nature prior to its being “corrupted” by “dogmatic religion.”  Such a view is naive.  Human beings have thought in terms of “us” and “them” in every part of the earth, as far back as recorded history goes, and have often resorted to force to deal with “them,” sometimes very brutally.  This is a tendency of human nature.  It would be judging any religion by impossible standards to indict it for not totally eradicating this tendency.  What we can hope for is that it be mitigated.  The question is whether a fair reading of history suggests that Christianity has aggravated this tendency at least as much as it has mitigated it.  Judgments about this are very difficult to make.  But I would say that, at the very least, Christianity has not produced the virtues it advocates to the degree that one could reasonably expect and, further, that it has to an extent aggravated the tendency to use coercive force against “aliens.”  

It has rightly been pointed out that Christian-Jewish relations cannot simply be categorized as one more example of the relations between “us” and “them.”  Christianity arose as a sect of Judaism; being a “Jew” who is not a “Christian” is in effect a denial of the central Christian claim; and the early antagonism of the “Christians” to those Jews who did not agree with them and ostracized them is reflected in the Sacred Scripture of the Christians in such a way that Judaism took on special theological significance. Due to these facts, the Christian attitude toward and treatment of Jews is a special case, although it is also an example of the more general human tendency to reduce those who are different to objects against whom the use of force is justifiable.

I have indicated three problems:

(1) the general problem of theodicy, especially in the light of the Holocaust;

(2)   the problem of the practical value of Christianity, especially with regard to the inculcation of the virtues of “love, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, and self-control” in relation to those who are perceived as different in some significant respect; and

(3)    the problem of the special animus that has been manifested by Christians toward Jews and Judaism.

The first problem is a purely theoretical one, which in principle can be solved by theological reformulation.  The second and third problems are practical ones, involving the attitudes and behavior of Christians; but they are rooted in part in theoretical beliefs, so that theological reformulation could be relevant to overcoming them.  I believe that at the root of the theoretical dimension of all three problems is one and the same issue: the understanding of God’s power in relation to the world. God has been understood by traditional Jewish and Christian theology as having coercive omnipotence.  This idea has led to an insoluble problem of evil; it has contributed to an anti-Judaistic Christology; and it has aggravated the coercive tendencies of those who have been informed by the biblical vision of the Holy Reality.  My threefold thesis is that process theology’s conception of God’s omnipotence as persuasive can solve the theoretical problem of evil, that it can remove the basis for an anti-Judaistic Christology, and that, to the extent that it would become widely informative of people’s perception of the Holy, it would mitigate their tendency to use coercion.  I will discuss these three issues in order.

Posted July 8, 2007


I: Process Theodicy


David Ray Griffin Page