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 Christology

I have developed a process Christology at some length elsewhere.Here, I will focus on those points that are most pertinent to the present concern, which is to indicate that a process conceptuality can enable Christians to develop a Christology that, on the one hand, provides a way of intelligibly conceptualizing affirmations about Jesus that are basic to Christian faith, but does not, on the other hand, support anti-Judaistic attitudes or do violence to basic Jewish beliefs.

The last point needs explanation.  By “not doing violence to basic Jewish beliefs” I do not, of course, mean that I as a Christian will not make affirmations about Jesus that some Jews cannot accept.  I mean that, unlike traditional formulations, the conceptuali-zation will neither compromise the oneness of God nor imply that God’s activity in Jesus was ontologically different from God’s activity in other prophets.

Of course, this negative criterion can easily be met and has been met (usually unintentionally) by much modem Christian theology, insofar as it has, through phenomenological bracketing or some other methodological device, avoided all metaphysical affirmations about deity in itself and Jesus, (special) relation to deity.  Such approaches, however, although admirable in some respects, do not provide an adequate theological explication of and support for Christian faith, for reasons that I have discussed elsewhere.10  The challenge is to meet the negative criterion of not doing violence to basic Jewish beliefs (along with the other negative criterion of not supporting anti-Judaistic attitudes), while providing a formulation of Jesus, special relation to God that is an adequate explication of what is implied by Christian faith.

There is another qualification that must be made with regard to the intention of not doing violence to basic Jewish beliefs.  There is one sense in which many contemporary theistic Jews will surely think that my position does violence to basic Jewish beliefs.  I have in mind particularly the things I have said and will say about what God cannot do, according to process theology.  Many Jews will think that these statements undermine basic beliefs about what God has done and will do.  Many Christians, however, will think the same thing, and yet I obviously do not believe that I am doing violence to basic Christian beliefs.  The point is, of course, that what is “basic to” any religious tradition is a matter of judgment, and my judgment is that process theology can do justice to the basic ideas of Christian faith.  By implication, therefore, it is also my judgment that process theology can do justice to the basics of Jewish faith because, with regard to the issue of how God can and cannot act in the world, there is no reason in principle for Jews to be less predisposed than Christians to accept process theology’s views on this matter.

The thesis that will be made explicit in the following is already implicit in the foregoing: The presupposition that made possible an anti-Judaistic Christian theology in general, and an anti-Judaistic Christology in particular, is a presupposition shared in common by traditional Judaism and traditional Christianity.  This is the presupposition that God is coercively omnipotent and can, therefore, totally determine events in the world.  Recognizing its connection with anti-Judaism is not the only or even the basic reason for rejecting this presupposition.  This recognition, however, may provide the psychological occasion for Jews and Christians to give serious consideration to the other good reasons for rejecting it.

It must be frankly acknowledged, of course, that this psychological element in most people’s beliefs—namely, that they partly believe things because they want to believe them—also works the other way in this case. That is, the hope that God will some day unilaterally set things right, bringing about an unambiguous salvation, encourages people to hold on to the traditional belief that God can unilaterally determine states of affairs in the world.  The question is whether the value of that hope is worth all the moral and intellectual problems entailed by holding on to the presupposition of that hope.

Given those preliminary remarks, I will now, in summary fashion, indicate how process thought can develop a Christology that does justice to basic Christian affirmations.  I will then point out the ways in which such a Christology, along with the more general Christian theological position compatible with it, rules out precisely those elements that did violence to Jewish beliefs and/or gave support to anti-Judaistic attitudes.

Christians have affirmed Jesus as the supreme incarnation of God—in particular, of the divine Logos.  The very idea of God’s being present in worldly actualities at all has been problematic for most philosophical positions, especially in the modem period.  In process philosophy, however, all actualities are centers of experience, and each experience incorporates to some extent all the other experiences in its immediate environment.  Because the divine experience is all-inclusive, it is in the immediate environment of, and is thereby incorporated into, every creaturely experience.  The notion that God was incarnate in Jesus, accordingly, poses no problems in itself.  What needs to be explained is how God could have been incarnate in him in a special way, such that it is especially appropriate to relate ourselves to God through Jesus.

Process philosophy allows us to understand the presence of God in creatures to differ in degree: God is more present in some creatures than in others.  There are two dimensions of this difference.  First, for higher-level, more complex creatures, the initial aim God gives will be more complex, including more of the pure possibilities (eternal objects) contained in the primordial nature of God.  Second, a creature can choose to constitute itself either by responding primarily to the complex possibility offered by God or by responding primarily to alternative possibilities offered by the past world.  This is a matter of degree.  Accordingly, high-level creatures, such as human beings, have the capacity to incarnate God more fully than do lower-grade ones; and those human beings who regularly determine themselves by responding with a high degree of conformity to the divinely-given aims for them incarnate God to the highest degree.

Process philosophy also allows us to understand the presence of God in us to differ in kind, in this sense: The divinely-given aims, which can be incorporated into creaturely experiences, differ in content.  To explain: The primordial nature of God contains all abstract possibilities, meaning those that are possibilities in the broadest sense of the word, including possibilities that could only be instantiated in a world inconceivably different from ours a trillion years in the future.  Only a small number of these abstract possibilities are real possibilities for a particular creature at a particular time and place.  For one thing, there is an order among the possibilities: Some are incompatible with others, and particular ones can only be entertained as real possibilities after prior ones have been actualized.  Accordingly, what God can proffer to a particular creature as the best possibility really open to it will depend not only upon the general kind of creature it is, but also upon the particular background out of which it arises.  For example, the content of the possibilities that can be presented to a human differ drastically from those that can be presented to an electron.  Also, the aims that can be presented to a human being in Israel in the fifth century B.C.E. will differ considerably from the real possibilities open to a person living at that same time in India.

The next step in the argument is that it is possible for the content of some particular aims given to creatures to reflect more directly than others God’s general aim for creation as a whole.  If ideal aims whose content reflected that general aim to a high degree were faithfully expressed by a human being through language and action, this language and action would be a special expression of God’s purpose.  Furthermore, if this symbolic expression were appropriately interpreted by some human beings, then a special revelation of God would have occurred.  In these terms, process theology can interpret Jesus as a special revelation of God’s purpose.  Additional considerations can lead to seeing Jesus as also especially revelatory of God’s character and mode of agency.

As well as showing how Jesus can intelligibly be understood as incarnating God in such a way that it is appropriate to apprehend him as a special revelation of God, process theology can also make intelligible the specialness of the incarnation of God in Jesus in such fashion as to support the conviction that Jesus is a model for human existence.

John Cobb has developed a conceptuality for understanding various ways in which the human psyche can be structured.11  This conceptuality can account for the differences between mythical existence and axial existence in general, and also for the differences among the various structures of axial existence.  Each structure of axial existence involves an authentic mode and various inauthentic modes in which it can be actualized.  Given this pluralistic approach, Jesus cannot be taken as a model for humanity in general in some simple sense.  Jesus can, however, be seen as a model with regard to the relation to the biblical God.  People who have had their existence decisively formed in relation to this God—a Holy Reality understood as a personal God who cares about our morality—are particularly conscious of the initial aim, especially its moral dimension, and therefore of the “ought” dimension of experience.  Whereas this awareness tends to produce societies that are more concerned with social justice than are other societies, it also can produce individuals who experience continual tension between duty and inclination.  The ideal aim is experienced as a call to do something other than what I want to do.  This tension is due to the fact that the center of my existence, my “self” or my ,,I,” finds the initial aim from God as one of the many alien data that need to be synthesized.  The “I,” or organizing center, is constituted by memories and purposes from my previous experiences.

The authentic sayings of Jesus, however, suggest that he had a peculiarly undistorted view of life and a sense of immediate authority.  These characteristics can be accounted for by supposing that, at least in certain decisive moments, the divine aims were not experienced by Jesus as something alien to his selfhood, but that his selfhood was constituted as much by these ideal aims as by his own previously formed purposes (which had in turn conformed to God’s aims and therefore involved the disposition to be open to God’s aims in the future).  In Jesus, accordingly, the tension between “desire and duty” would have been transcended, at least to a great extent and in decisive periods.

This reflection provides a way of showing how the incarnation in Jesus might have differed from the incarnation of God in most human beings not only in degree, and not only in content, but also in the role that the incarnation played in the structure of his existence, for in this portrayal the incarnation of the divine purpose is constitutive of Jesus, very self.  In this sense we can take Jesus as a model for ideal human existence vis-à-vis God.

The point of the foregoing Christogical sketch is that process categories for understanding God’s relation to the world can explicate Christian convictions about Jesus—as special incarnation of God, as special revelation of God, and as model for ideal human existence in relation to God—in a way that does no violence to Jewish beliefs about God.  Thus far, accordingly, the point has been positive.  I now turn to the negative points implicit in this sketch, meaning the aspects of traditional Christian theology that are ruled out.  (I believe, however, the acceptance of these negative points to be a positive move forward.)

(1)       If Jesus, thus understood, is really accepted as a special revelation of God’s mode of agency in the world, then this acceptance provides no basis for attributing coercive omnipotence to God.  God acted on and through Jesus by attraction or persuasion, not by coercion.  This interpretation fits with the portrayal of Jesus in the synoptic gospels, once one strips away some added miraculous elements (while realizing that the authentic miraculous events can be understood in terms of parapsy-chological [as well as psychoso-matic] relations)12 and the theolo-gical rationalization of Jesus, death as planned and determined from the beginning by God.  Once this later framework is removed, there is nothing in the life of Jesus—the life of a man who responded freely to God’s call, sought to persuade others to respond to the present and future Reign of God, and ended up on a cross in the prime of life—if it be taken as a special revelation of God’s modus operandi, to suggest that God possesses coercive omnipotence.

(2)      Although it is affirmed in this Christology that Jesus was a special incarnation of the divine Logos,13 this Logos is not under-stood to be in any sense a subject, or a quasi-subject, with its own experience within the Godhead.  Rather, the Logos is understood as an abstraction within God.  There are not multiple centers, or even quasi-centers, of experience in God.  The Logos is God’s primordial envisagement of the eternal possibilities for finite existence with the purpose of actualizing these possibilities in such a way as to maximize the richness and joy of finite existence.  This Logos is, hence, the eternal purpose of God, which came to expression in Jesus, message of the Reign of God.  Accordingly, there is no basis in this Christology for a tritheistic understanding of God.  Also, not thinking of the Logos as an experiencing subject removes one of the bases in traditional Christology for assuming that the “incarnation of the Logos” in Jesus somehow made Jesus less than, or more than, fully human.

(3)       This incarnational Christology does not require, and in fact removes every basis for, thinking of Jesus as other than fully human in any sense.  Jesus in no way shared in those attributes that can characterize only God, such as omniscience, omnipresence, asei-ty.  (The telepathic and clairvoyant knowledge Jesus evidently had, for example, does not make him different in kind in this respect from several other human beings, and does not even begin to approach divine omniscience.)  God was present in Jesus, but only as experienced, not as experiencing subject.  The subjectivity of Jesus was not, even in part, divine subjectivity; no aspect of the normal, human type of psyche was replaced by something divine.  The idea that the structure of Jesus, existence differs from that of the rest of us in being more oriented around the initial aims received from God, so that Jesus, “I” was especially constituted by the incarnation of the divine Logos, in no way contradicts this point.  What is involved here is not an ingredient in Jesus that is not present in the rest of us, but a different structuring of the relations among the various ingredients.  In simplest terms, Jesus was in no sense God.  Accordingly, every basis for the charge of “deicide” is removed (whether the Jewish or Roman authorities be regarded as primarily responsible for Jesus, death).

(4)       In whatever way Jesus may have been special with regard to his relation to God, this specialness was not unilaterally determined by God, but depended upon repeated, free, human responses.  This does not mean that Jesus, specialness was not rooted in God in any sense, as implied by those Christologies that portray Jesus as simply having actualized to an optimal degree the possibilities that are presented to all humans.  On the contrary, God (by hypothesis) always calls an event to realize the best possibilities open to it, given its particular past and its particular environment.  Accordingly, insofar as all pasts and environments differ, especially for human beings, God’s ideal aims for all human experiences differ, more or less.  However—and this is the main negative point being made here—any specialness characterizing the ideal aims presented to Jesus was not a result of a unilateral decision on God’s part.  Rather, it depended upon the centuries of partly free responses to God in the Hebraic tradition, and upon the partly free decisions of those who were especially influential in the development of Jesus, character, and then upon the entire series of responses made by Jesus in his formative years, and finally upon those made during his active ministry.  In other words, how Jesus responded to divine aims in one moment determined what aims God could present in a subsequent moment, and so on.

This view, incidentally, provides one way of explicating the Jewish saying:

When the Israelites do God’s will, they add to the power of God on high. When the Israelites do not do God’s will, they, as it were, weaken the great power of God on high.14

God had the power to become specially incarnate in, and revealed through, Jesus only because of the long series of events in which Jesus, predecessors, and then Jesus himself, actualized God’s will or ideal aims for them in their particular circumstances.

This fourth point doubly under-scores Jesus, full humanity: It stresses not only that Jesus was in no way merely a puppet.  It also stresses that the “special prevenient grace” that can be affirmed as part of the explanation of Jesus, life was not the result of an arbitrary, unilateral decision by God but an exemplification of God’s practice always and everywhere of presenting the best aims possible for the creatures, given the particular circumstances at hand that determine what is really possible for those creatures.  In underscoring Jesus, full humanity by stressing the role of our past in determining what God can do with us, this point also underscores Jesus, Jewishness: If Jesus was indeed a special incarnation of God, as Christians profess, this type of incarnation simply could not have occurred elsewhere than in a Jew.  Accordingly, this fourth point, along with the previous ones, removes every basis for the view, expressed by “Nazi Christians” and other Marcionites, that Jesus, Jewishness was irrelevant to his specialness.15

(5)       The question as to whether Jesus was the “Messiah who was to come” does not admit of an unambiguous answer. Because all historical events involve partially self-determining responses, God cannot know the future, and cannot unilaterally determine the present. In particular, God cannot simply decide that some pre-existent set of characteristics (what Whitehead calls a “complex eternal object”) will be instantiated at such-and-such a time and place. Whether that complex abstract possibility can even be proffered as a real possibility for some individual or community will depend upon the myriad decisions that are made by the creatures in the intervening time. Also, even if that intervening history is most fortunate in respect to that complex possibility’s becoming a real possibility (a lure for realization) for an individual or community, the issue of whether or not it then gets incarnated will be decided by the individual or community. 

For these reasons, there is ambiguity at every point of the history of the expectation of a “messiah.”  On the one hand, there was never any unambiguous announcement from God that a messiah, however understood, would appear.  There was certainly no unambiguous announcement that a particular type of messiah would appear.  On the other hand, Jesus, own life was not planned and controlled by God in any detail: There were free, unforeseen responses at every point, and undoubtedly many of these were ambiguous.  Jesus, life was a partially self-creating definition of a special agent of God, not a mere acting out of a pre-established blueprint.  One can see Jesus, life and message as a particularly creative response to the tradition and the contemporary situation without saying that it was the response to be made, and certainly without saying that Jesus unambiguously was the expected messiah.  The answer to that question, “Was Jesus the messiah?” can only be: “It depends.”  That is, it depends on what you mean by “messiah.,,  It also depends on how you understand Jesus, particularly which aspects of his life you take to be primary.  Christians, from this point of view, are those who have decided that Jesus, life in some sense creatively defined the nature of true messiahship.  In making this confession, however, they need not conclude that those who disagree with them are wrong. There simply is no unambiguous right and wrong on this question. This issue, however, is far too complex to discuss briefly.16

(6)      Just as it was impossible for God totally to determine events prior to Jesus, so that none of these events can be taken as providing infallible testimony as to God’s purposes, no events after Jesus, life can be taken as infallible testimony that Jesus was exactly what God had in mind (whether Jesus be considered by Christians to have perfectly fulfilled the best Jewish expec-tations for a messiah or to have been a surprising, unexpected fulfillment).  In other words, Christians cannot take events reported in their “New Testament,” or any other statements therein, as having infallibly settled the question.  Even the resurrection appearances, whatever be thought to have “really happened,” cannot legitimately be taken as an unambiguous statement by God that Jesus was precisely the kind of life God had planned in order to carry forward the divine purpose. As the example of the orthodox Jewish theologian Pinchas Lapide shows, one can believe in the resurrection of Jesus without drawing any messianic conclu-sion.17  If some of us take Jesus as central for our relationship to God, it must be on some basis other than the assumption that we have unambiguous testimony from God on this score. 

The more general point here is that we cannot take any of the events or statements in the Bible as unambiguous statements of God’s will and attitudes.  All the statements in the Bible are human formulations.  Some of them can be thought to be based, more or less, upon ideal aims from God, as can some of the events reported in the Bible.  But the events reported, the reporting itself, and the doctrinal statements all involved human self-determination and therefore the possibility (and virtual inevitability) of ignorance, wishful thinking, and ideological (self-serving) distortion.  This means that the anti-Jewish polemic in the New Testament ought not to be taken as an expression of God’s own attitude.  The same is true of the statements of later church theologians and councils.  The Holy Spirit can do many things, but She cannot guarantee that any individual or council will not fall into error and sin.

(7)      A qualification must be made, however, with regard to the previous two points, which have stressed not only that we have no infallible testimony as to whether God viewed Jesus as the “expected messiah” but also that the very notion of Messiahship or Christ-hood is ambiguous, allowing of multiple interpretations.  The qualification is that some understandings of what kind of messiah could be realistically expected would be ruled out by a process perspective.  A messiah who could unilaterally bring an end to the ambiguities of life cannot be realistically expected.  If one were to hold this definition of messiahship to be fixed, then from a process perspective one would have to conclude that a messiah was not to be expected.  To be actual is to have power, and this includes the power to resist the divine will.  A multiplicity of actualities cannot be guaranteed, even by God—whether working through an earthly agent or not—to actualize themselves in conformity with the divine will and, hence, for the general good.  Process theology, therefore, stands in the same negative relation to a particular formulation of the Jewish expectation of a messiah and a messianic age as it does to a particular formulation of the Christian expectation of a “second coming,” according to which some agent will unilaterally bring about an unambiguous reign of peace, love, and justice.  In whatever way we might retain these respective notions as symbols, we should not portray them as literal expecta-tions.  To do so implies the belief that God has coercive omnipotence held in reserve—the belief that creates the insoluble problem of evil and associated difficulties.

The denial of coercive omnipotence to God means that we have to distinguish, in a way traditional theology did not, between God’s will, on the one hand, and what will actually happen, on the other.  Accordingly it is one thing to take the message of the prophets and of Jesus about a Reign of God on earth, in which there would be love, justice, and peace, as true intuitions into, or revelations of, the divine purpose.  It is another step, and an unwarranted one, to assume that God’s purpose will necessarily be achieved in an unambiguous form, especially in a sudden fashion.

It is at this point that many theologians of oppressed groups face their biggest dilemma.  On the one hand, they want to retain the idea of God as having coercive power, so that they can retain the expectation that, some day, God will step in with coercive power and unilaterally put things right.  On the other hand, if they portray God as having that kind of power, they have to wonder why God has waited so long, and has allowed so much misery already.  If God has that kind of power, and yet has failed to use it on behalf of the oppressed, especially when the oppression has become horren-dous, the implication is that God cares less for justice than we do, or that God is even positively evil, perhaps racist or sexist.  This is the issue behind William R. Jones, query in the title of his book, Is God a White Racist?, and behind Richard Rubenstein’s claim that After Auschwitz no Jew (or good Christian) should believe in a providential God of history.  This issue is also reflected in the position of Eliezer Berkovits, John Roth, and Frederick Sontag, that God either is not (yet) perfectly good, or is good by some other standard than ours.18  

The position of process theology is that, as understandable as the desire to hang onto the idea of coercive omnipotence may be, the Holocaust provides conclusive evidence, if prior history did not, that this doctrine should be given up explicitly and consistently.  This should be done in the interests of realism: There is no credible evidence in favor of the hypothesis that God has this kind of power, and there is much evidence against it.  This doctrine should be given up also in the interests of preserving belief in a God of perfect goodness who is worthy of our absolute worship and commitment.19

(8)       Because God cannot control any events, and because most events can be assumed to diverge from God’s will more or less significantly, we cannot assume—as Rabbi Harold Kushner has forcibly argued in When Bad Things Happen to Good People—that misfortune represents God’s pun-ishment.  This is a key point for the problem of evil in general, and in particular for the attitudes of the powerful and fortunate in relation to those who are less powerful and fortunate.  To assume a positive correlation between fortune and divine favor is one of the most prevalent forms of ideology (in the strict sense of doctrine that distorts the troth in order to justify special benefits for oneself or one’s group).  The fact that Christians have time and time again reverted to this ideology is especially reprehensible in the light of the dual fact that, not only was Jesus himself killed in the prime of life.  He was also portrayed as rejecting that ideological theology, saying, for example, that God makes the rain to fall on the just and the unjust alike (Matthew 5:45) and that those who suffered through catastrophes were not worse sinners than others (Luke 13:1-3).

(9)       Neither Jews nor Christians can (if process theism be accepted) take convenantal statements recorded in their scriptures as accurate statements of decisions made by God.  For example, Irving Greenberg points to the Holocaust as evidence that “God didn,t keep his part” of the covenant with the Jews.20  But the fact that God is depicted as making certain promises in the Hebrew scriptures—even if they should be interpreted as promising protection against such catastrophes—cannot be taken as unambiguous evidence that God actually made such promises.  Likewise, particular statements in those writings that Christians refer to as the “New Testament”—even if they should be interpreted as meaning that God has made a new covenant or testament that abrogates the one with the Jews—cannot be taken as unambiguous evidence that God actually made such a decision.

In other words, one and the same presupposition—that God has coercive omnipotence and can therefore completely control historical events (including “word events”)—lies behind the assumption that God made special promises to the Jews and the assumption that this special relationship was abrogated in favor of a special relationship with Christians.  Once the presup-position of divine coercive omnipotence is consistently given up, the basis is gone for the belief that either Jews or Christians are especially loved, protected, or guaranteed ultimate salvation by God.  This will help us overcome not only the constant disappointment that such a belief inevitably brings, but also the arrogance that Jews and Christians have found offensive in each other—and that Christians have usually been in position to be offensive about.

There will be some—both Christians and Jews—who will surely consider the prescription offered here worse than the disease.  Belief in the nonexistence of a Holy Reality with coercive omnipotence is, however, advocated first of all not for its beneficial effects, although they should be legion, but because it seems to be true, given the history of what has occurred in biblical times, in the more general history of the world, and in our own individual experiences. The pragmatic value of religious beliefs is very important, and it is not illegitimate to take this value into account in determining what to affirm.  But we should, insofar as possible, try to determine first of all what seems to be true, apart from the question of the probable effects of believing it. Furthermore, if we really have religious faith, in the deepest sense, we will trust that believing the truth will be, overall, more beneficial than believing falsehood, no matter how many particular benefits may have come from the acceptance of particular falsehoods.

In this essay, I have, in fact, been focusing primarily upon some of the benefits, with regard to the problem of evil in general and Jewish-Christian relations in particular, that can be derived from regarding divine omnipotence as persuasive rather than coercive.  In the third section I turn to the benefits that can be expected with regard to the nature of Jewish and Christian existence, in both individual and group activities, in relation to the role of the “will to power” in our lives.

Posted July 8, 2007



III. The Imitatio Dei [and Notes]


David Ray Griffin Page