Panentheism.  Revisionism.  Anarchocapitalism.


David Ray Griffin

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Essays by Me

Essays by Others

Process Theodicy, Christology, and the Imitatio Dei

David Ray Griffin

I. Process Theodicy

There has been considerable advocacy, for example by Irving Greenberg2 of the idea that the Holocaust should be perceived as a new revelation.  I agree that it should, if it is specified that “revelation” is not being used in the strict sense here, and that the revelation is a negative one.  To speak of an event as a revelation of God in the strict sense, one should mean not only that the event has been received by someone as revelatory of God’s nature (the subjective side of revelation), but also that the event resulted from God’s activity in such a way that the event in itself, prior to its reception at any subsequent time as a revelation of God, was a self-expression of God’s nature (the objective side of revelation).3  In endorsing the idea that the Holocaust is appropriately taken as a revelation of God, the term revelation is not being used in the strict sense, because the objective dimension is absent: The event was not a positive self-expression of God’s nature.   Insofar as it is appropriately received as a revelation, this is not because of some positive input by God, but precisely because there was not any special divine causal influence in a situation that seemed (to many) to call for it.

This point leads to the sense in which the revelation is negative.  It has been taken by many, and it should be taken by all (at least by all who were not already consciously convinced by other data), as revealing this truth: There is no Holy Reality with coercive omnipotence.

This general negative truth allows for at least three variations.  One would be that there is no Holy Reality at all—that is, no reality that is worthy of our total devotion.  This is nihilism.  A second option would be that there is a Holy Reality, but that this Holy Reality exerts no providential guidance in the processes of nature and human history.  This has been Richard Rubenstein’s response.  A third possibility is that there is a Holy Reality that exerts providential power in the world, but this power is necessarily persuasive, not coercive.  Process theology provides a version of this third view.  I have developed a process theodicy at length elsewhere.4  Here I will simply layout four major points in very sketchy fashion.

The first point is that creativity (or energy, or power) is inherent in the world.  Creativity is the twofold power of individual events (1) to determine themselves partially and (2) to influence subsequent events.  This power exists in various degrees: Individual events at the electronic level have far less than do human events.  But all events that are genuine individuals have at least some iota of this twofold power.  (There are many entities that we ordinarily call “things” [such as rocks] and “events” [such as rock concerts] that are not genuine individuals:  They have less unity than their constituents [such as the molecules in the rock and the members of the rock group and of the audience].  These mere aggregational clusters of individuals have no creative power whatsoever; all the creativity is in the individuals constituting them. In speaking of “events” and “beings,” I will be referring to true individuals.)

To say that this power is inherent in the world is to say that the world embodies it necessarily.  It is not a contingent characteristic of the world, voluntarily granted to it by God.  There could be worlds other than this one; but there could, by hypothesis, be no actual world without this inherent power of creativity.

This creative power, exemplified by all creaturely individuals, is a power that cannot be overridden by God.  This means that God cannot completely control any event in the world.  God seeks to persuade events to actualize the best possibilities open to them.  But God can only seek to persuade; God cannot dictate.  God proposes; the world disposes.  This feature of the God-world relation is not a feature created by God, through some form of self-limitation.  This is simply, by hypothesis, the way things are, eternally and necessarily.

Accordingly, the central feature of the world, in relation to God’s will, is its ambiguity.  Each event has a divinely derived ideal aim, but this ideal aim gets embodied in an event having its own power of being.  This means that the possibility of ambiguity exists in every single event in the world.  Because each event is internally affected by preceding events, as well as having its own partial autonomy, there are two bases for ambiguity.  First, each event gets off to an ambiguous start; the “ideal aim” proffered by God is “ideal” only in relation to those particular ambiguous circumstances.  “The initial aim is the best for that impasse.”5  Second, should an individual perfectly actualize the possibility that is ideal for it in this sense, this eventuality would not be determined by God, but would be due to the response of the individual.

This doctrine implies that there can be no one being with a monopoly on power.  Having “perfect power” simply cannot mean being the “sole power” (contra Emil Fackenheim).  There is necessarily a multiplicity of beings with power; power is necessarily shared.  This doctrine also means that God cannot coerce worldly beings, because the inherent power they have cannot be overridden.  Accordingly, if there is a Holy Reality with “omnipotence,” defined as perfect power (meaning the greatest power one being could possibly have), it cannot be coercive omnipotence.  If omnipotence is attributed to God, it must be persuasive omnipotence.

The doctrine of creatio ex nihilo, with nihil understood as absolutely nothing, has been correlative with the doctrine of coercive omnipotence.  If God created our present world out of absolutely nothing, there would be no realities that have any inherent power of their own with which to resist the divine will.  Any power possessed by any of the creatures would be purely a divine gift, and could be withdrawn, or overridden (depending upon which terminology is preferred), at any time.

Process theology, by contrast, envisages God as creating our ordered world out of chaos, out of the “formless void” of Genesis 1.  There are important senses in which the phrase creatio ex nihilo can properly be used.6  But process theology denies that God ever was the only actuality.  It also denies that worldly actualities were ever totally controllable by God.  Creation is (by hypothesis) always based upon a prior state of finite actualities (although that state might be too chaotic to be properly termed a world), and these actualities have always had at least an iota of uncontrollable power.  The divine creative action is, accordingly, always limited to encouraging the best possible advance upon the previous state of things.

In sum, the first point of a process theodicy is that creative power is inherent in the world.  The corollaries of this point are the rejection of creation out of absolute nothingness, the impossibility of coercive omnipotence, and the resulting inevitability of worldly ambiguity.

The second point is that there is an order among possibilities.  After A is actualized, F cannot be actualized until B, C, D, and E have been actualized.  For example, human beings could not—some artificial intelligence enthusiasts notwithstanding—have been created directly out of protons and electrons.  It was necessary first to have atoms, then molecules, then macromolecules, then multicelled animals.  A very complex organization was necessary before a soul could emerge, especially a human soul.  This point, in conjunction with the previous one, means that the creation of our world was necessarily a step-by-step process.  In other words, God created our world by means of a long, slow, evolutionary process not for some mysterious reason, known only to divine omniscience; God used this process because it is the only possible way to create a world such as ours.

Having mentioned omniscience, I should pause to indicate more clearly the nature of my process theodicy, as it may well sound as if it were propounded from a viewpoint of presumed omniscience.  It is proposed, rather, as a hypothesis, to be accepted or rejected on the same grounds as any hypothesis: in terms of its consistency, its adequacy to all the relevant facts, and its illuminating power.  So, for example, the doctrine that the world necessarily consists of actualities that inherently possess power is a speculative hypothesis, as is the contrary doctrine that there could be a world devoid of power.  One of the reasons for preferring the former hypothesis to the latter is that the latter creates an insoluble problem of evil.  Likewise, the correlative altematives—creation out of chaos or out of absolute nothingness, persuasive omnipotence or coercive omnipotence—are also speculative hypotheses.  Neither set of alternatives has been infallibly revealed; neither set is any more speculative than the other.

I move now to the third hypothesis of this process theodicy, which is that there exist in the nature of things positive correlations among the following variables:

(1)     the capacity for enjoyment, mean-ing experience that is harmonious and intense;

(2)       the capacity for suffering;

(3)      freedom, or the power of self-determination;

(4)      the power to contribute good to others; and

(5)      the power to inflict suffering upon others.

(The fourth and fifth points together constitute the power of other-determination, or causal influence.)

For there to be a positive correlation among these variables means that, as anyone of them rises, the other four necessarily rise proportionately.  The creator’s purpose throughout the evolutionary process, by hypothesis, has been to bring about creatures with more and more capacity for enjoying higher values.  The increasing complexity of organisms, which is a direction observable in this process, is a pre-condition for greater variety and intensity of experience.  When this greater variety plus intensity is synthesized harmoniously, the desired result is achieved.  However—and this is where the second variable comes in—the same conditions that allow greater enjoyment also make greater suffering possible.  The reason for this correlation is that both variables presuppose the same quality: sensitivity.  At the human level, the capacity for the highest enjoyments involves sensitivity to our body’s experience (as in the enjoyment of food, exercise, sex, and sights, sounds, and smells in the environment), to the welfare of others (as in the enjoyment of our children’s successes), the opinion of others (as in the enjoyment of praise), and to moral, intellectual, aesthetic, and religious values.  However, these same sensitivities can cause us intensely disharmonious experience, as when our bodies are starving or wracked with pain, when our children suffer or die prematurely, when others criticize us, when we feel moral or religious guilt, when our intellectual processes lead to conclusions that are horrifying, or when we find our environment ugly.  Any of these experiences can induce sufficient suffering to lead to suicide.  Humans enjoy positive values of which no dog dreams; but we also experience negative values that no dog dreads.  The conditions that make possible the higher forms of enjoyment equally make possible the higher forms of suffering.

Suggesting that this correlation exists “in the nature of things” means that it obtains necessarily. It was not arbitrarily decided upon by God, even “before the foundations of the world.”  The hypothesis is that the correlation is a metaphysical necessity: It would obtain in any possible world God could create.  Accordingly, the creative process is necessarily a risky business.  The creative purpose of bringing about increasingly greater richness of experience in the creation cannot be carried out without the risk of greater suffering.

The riskiness of the creative process is intensified by the other correlations, which (by hypothesis) are equally necessary.  The third variable is freedom, or the power of self-determination.  According to process theology, freedom in and of itself is not the quality God is most concerned to promote.  Rather, creatures with more and more freedom are evoked because increased freedom is part and parcel of the increased capacity for enjoyment.  Consequently, process theodicy has a clear answer to a question that is so difficult for most other theodicies, namely: “Why did God not create beings who would have been just like us in all respects except that they would not have been genuinely free?  These creatures would have been able to experience all the values we can enjoy (except those that presuppose sin), including the belief that they were free, but would always act rightly, never bringing unnecessary suffering to themselves or others.  Why did God not create a world composed of them instead?”  For process theodicy, the answer is simply: “God could not have done so, because such creatures are as impossible as round squares.”  It is metaphysically impossible for there be creatures with a high sensitivity to various values without a correspondingly high degree of freedom, which means freedom to violate the creator’s will, or ideal aim, for them.  By correlating this third variable with the second, we see that the creatures who have the greatest capacity to suffer also have the greatest capacity to reject the best possibilities for themselves and, thereby, to make themselves miserable.

Greater power for self-determination also correlates positively with greater power to influence others.  The happy side of this is the fourth variable, the power to contribute good to others.  The ominous side is the fifth variable, the power to inflict suffering upon others.  It is when we bring this fifth variable into the picture, along with the second and third (the capacities for suffering and for self-determination), that we have the conditions for a “Holocaust Universe.”  On the assumption that these correlations, which factually obtain in our world, also necessarily obtain, any world God could create would necessarily be tragic, meaning that the greater goods would not be possible without the possibility of the greater evils.  Accordingly, any universe with creatures possessing the capacity for rational self-determination, and for the enjoyment of all the values this capacity makes possible, would necessarily be a universe in which holocausts could occur.  A world with creatures such as Moses, Jeremiah, Jesus, Maimonides, St. Francis, Pope John XXIII, St. Teresa, Martin Luther King, Martin Niemoeller, Abraham Heschel, and Martin Buber is simply not possible without the possibility of beings who would bring fellow human beings in chains from Africa to serve as slaves, beings who would decimate the native American population, and beings who would seek to destroy the entire Jewish population in Europe.

Would it have been better if human beings had not been created?  The fourth hypothesis of this process theodicy is relevant to this question.  This is the affirmation that God not only rejoices with all our joys but also suffers with all our sufferings.  In fact, God is the one being who suffers all the pain in the universe, and is thereby the one being in position to judge whether the higher stages of creation have been worth the risks.

This fourth point puts a different light on the question of God’s moral goodness.  In the previous paragraphs, God was portrayed as urging on the universe to develop more and more complex structures in order to make possible the higher forms of value-experience.  Because this divine leading also has made possible the more horrendous forms of evil, however, God could seem to be callous.  But this fourth point says that the Holy Reality has never opened up the possibility of any kind or degree of suffering that It Itself was not willing to endure.

It seems that Jewish thought has emphasized this biblical insight more than Christian theology, having been less influenced by Greek notions of perfection as immutability and impassibility.  One of the ironies of Christianity has been that it took the suffering death of Jesus on the cross as its central symbol and yet denied that God suffers with the world.  In our century, fortunately, this contradiction of its central symbol, and of the biblical witness in general, is being overcome, as evidenced in the writings of Reinhold Niebuhr, Kazo Kitamora, Jürgen Moltmann, and various feminist theologians, as well as process theologians.

At this point, I want to draw out the contrast between the process view of God’s power in relation to worldly freedom and that of the currently prevalent view.  This prevalent view involves the hypothesis of a voluntary self-limitation on God’s part.  That is, God essentially has coercive omnipotence, but freely decides to create some beings having freedom.  Deity, thereby, limits its power to control all events, because it permits the free creatures to make their own decisions, including the decision to sin.  Deity voluntarily limits its power to that of persuasion.7  I call this the “hybrid free-will defense,” because it does not go all the way with freedom: It does not affirm it to be an ingredient inherent in the world.

From the process perspective, there are several problems with this hybrid position.  First, theologians who take this position usually speak as if God gave freedom only to some of the creatures; these privileged creatures are often limited to human beings.  This implies that God has coercive omnipotence in relation to the rest of creation.  Accordingly, all those events usually called “natural evils,” such as diseases, earthquakes, and tornadoes, receive no explanation.  Of course, this problem could be solved by affirming that God has freely given some power of self-determination to every level of actuality, down to the subatomic events, but few of the theologians in question have done this.  (Also, it would be a mystery as to why God would choose to give living cells the freedom to become cancerous, if this were not necessary.)

A second problem with the hybrid free-will defense is that, if God essentially has coercive omnipotence, so that the power of self-determination has been freely given to the creation, God could withdraw this power at any time.  God could intervene in the “natural” course of things to prevent gross evils.  The idea that God has this kind of power in reserve leads to the expectation that God should use it in particular situations.  This expectation lies behind many of Elie Wiesel’s most poignant passages.  It lies behind Irving Greenberg’s lament, “There were no thunderbolts of divine curses to check mass murder or torture.”  It lies behind Alexander Donat’s disappointed statement, “In vain we looked at that cloudless September sky for some sign of God’s wrath.”8  It lies behind thousands of other outbursts against God, and only God knows how many people have been led to atheism because of this expectation.

A third problem of the hybrid free-will position is that it makes our responsibility for the future of the world dubious.  If God has the power unilaterally to bring about a perfect world, then are our efforts really essential?  If God has the power to overcome the evils of the world unilaterally and yet has failed to use it for all these centuries, can the battle against evil really be very important from the ultimate point of view?  These kinds of questions can undermine long-term, whole-hearted commitment to overcoming the evils of the world, including efforts to avoid the imminent destruction of the human species.  Such commitment is urgently needed—at least on the assumption that there is not a good God with coercive omnipotence, which I am taking the Holocaust to have confirmed.  

I turn now to the question of the kind of Christology that could be developed in harmony with this process theodicy.

Posted July 8, 2007


II: Process Christology

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