Panentheism.  Revisionism.  Anarchocapitalism.


David Ray Griffin

[link to CV]


Essays by Me

Essays by Others

Process Theodicy, Christology, and the Imitatio Dei

David Ray Griffin

III. The Imitiatio Dei

The argument of this section can be stated in eight theses:

(1)      Human beings have a religious drive.

(2)      This drive is to be in harmony with deity, and this means, most fundamentally, to imitate deity—that which is Holy. 

(3)       It is the felt or perceived Holy that we primarily want to imitate, not that which is merely conceived (intellectually) to be Holy.

(4)      However, our conception of the Holy Reality, to the degree that we believe it sincerely, focus our attention on it affectively in public and private worship, have it portrayed effectively to us in stories, sermons, and the arts, and have it confirmed by others in a community of faith, can greatly mold our perception of the Holy.

(5)       Because creativity, or the twofold power to determine ourselves and to express ourselves so as to influence others, is the fundamental metaphysical reality constitutive of all actualities, human beings have a metaphysical drive to exercise power on others. This dimension of the “will to power” can be actualized, how-ever, in either primarily coercive or primarily persuasive fashion.

(6)       Insofar as human beings perceive the Holy Reality as Coercive Omnipotence, their religious drive will reinforce the tendency to use coercion, because the exercise of coercive power will be felt to be an imitation of deity, a participation in the Holy.

(7)      Insofar as the Holy Reality is perceived to be Persuasive Omnipotence, the religious drive of human beings will still encourage them to be effective in the world, but it will reinforce the tendency to exert influence by using persuasion whenever possible, seeking to influence others by presenting to them possibilities that they see as attractive.  The religious drive, thus informed, will therefore mitigate the tendency to use coercion.  Coercion will still have to be used in some situations, but it will be exercised with the sense of regret that persuasion has failed, not with the sense of exhilaration that comes from the sense of imitating deity.

(8)      One of the ways in which theologians qua theologians can be most effective in improving the human exercise of power is by helping people overcome concep-tions and perceptions of the Holy Reality as Coercive Omnipotence, and by presenting convincing portrayals of the Holy Reality as Persuasive Omnipotence.

The first thesis, that human beings have a religious drive, has been widely contested, especially since the eighteenth century, but I believe that the evidence of history bears it out.

The second and third theses, that this drive is most fundamentally to imitate deity as perceived (or felt, or—in Jonathan Edward’s metaphor—”tasted”), can be supported by appealing to the lives and writings of those who have most deeply come to see and experience reality in terms of the conception of the Holy that they hold.  For these people, the Holy Reality is less of an inference from other self-evident data than the experienced reality that determines the way in which all other things are viewed.  These people, more or less consciously, strive to imitate the central characteristic of the Holy Reality as they perceive it: the Taoist to become like the Tao; the Buddhist to achieve the perfect equanimity of Nirvana and/or the perfect compassion of the Buddha; the Vedantist to become like Brahman; the Vitalist to become fully alive, especially in one’s bodily and emotional being; the Rationalist (in the sense of one who sees disembodied Reason as that which creates and saves us) to be unemotionally rational; the Stoic to achieve the perfect “apathy” of the divine reality.

The fourth thesis is a Platonic point, which I also believe to be confirmed by human experience.  If it were not true that our conceptions made a difference to our feelings and outer behavior, it would be hard to understand why people in every society have been passionately concerned about what is believed, especially about the Holy Reality.  However, the distinction between those conceptions that do and do not become perceptions takes account of the recognition that many of our “beliefs” seem to have little effect upon our behavior.  Both sides of the truth are stated by Whitehead:

Your character is developed according to your faith.  This is the primary religious truth from which no one can escape.  Religion is force of belief cleansing the inward parts.  For this reason the primary religious virtue is sincerity, a penetrating sincerity.

A religion, on its doctrinal side, can thus be defined as a system of general truths which have the effect of transforming character when they are sincerely held and vividly apprehended.

In the long run your character and your conduct of life depend upon your intimate convictions.21

The remaining theses seem to need no clarification, but, for some support for the overall position, I can point to Richard Rubenstein’s writings.  These writings show that he has most fundamentally understood deity in terms of Coercive Omnipotence.  For example, he says that the world is functionally godless, because there is no punishment for violating the divine law, and that the state is in effect God, because it has the power to define what will be punished.22 The thought that God might exercise persuasive providential influence in the world has evidentally not been a live option for Rubenstein, as he poses the issue of God’s reality as a dichotomy: Either the “all-powerful judge,” the “omnipotent God of History,” exists, or else there is no providential God at all.23  Rubenstein’s early vision of the Holy Reality as Coercive Omnipotence (which seems to have been a perception, not a mere conception) was the determining factor, according to his own account, in his choice of vocation: He confesses in retrospect that his desire to be a priest was “the quest for God-like omnipotence,” an attempt to fulfill “fantasies of omnipotence.”24

I have said in Thesis 2 that the drive to be “in harmony with” deity is most fundamentally the drive to “imitate” deity.  Many might think, instead, that the drive to be in harmony with deity would give us impetus not to imitate but to obey the will of deity (that is, in those religions in which deity is conceived as a personal being who issues commands or at least has preferences).  There is some truth to this.  But the deeper form of the drive, I am convinced, is to imitate deity, insofar as possible.  Accordingly, believers are given two messages when God is portrayed as telling them, “Do as I say, not as I do:, as in Romans 12:19: “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.”  At the surface level, believers are told to eschew vengeance, and the desire to be in harmony with the will of deity gives them some motivation to do this. At the deeper level, however, they receive the message that wreaking vengeance is divine activity, and their drive to imitate the nature of divinity leads them to want to participate in this activity.  (My discussion of this passage from Romans concerns, to be sure, not Paul’s exact intentions but only a common reading of it.)

In other biblical passages there is more evident consistency between the portrayal of God’s nature and the recommendation for human existence. One of the clearest examples is in Luke 6:35-36:

But love your enemies and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return; and your reward will be great; and you will be sons of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the selfish.  Be merciful, even as your father is merciful.

It seems, unfortunately, that the former tendency is quite pervasive in the Bible and in both Judaism and Christianity.  That is, believers are exhorted to be gentle and patient, to work through love, and to overcome evil with good; but the Holy One is too often portrayed as the ultimate coercive power, and as using this power, now or in the future, to overcome evil with evil—to take vengeance, to destroy.

I believe that this fact goes a long way (in conjunction with universal human egoism and ignorance) toward explaining that enormous difference between the “manifest values” and the “ethos” of the Judaeo-Christian tradition, to which Richard Rubenstein (and countless other critics) have called attention.  The manifest values—the explicit ethical teachings—are undermined by the vision of God that has been dominant in Jewish and Christian circles, because the desire to imitate this God has led to an ethos that encourages violence, particularly against those who are “enemies” of this God and against whom this God has promised to take vengeance.

Whitehead commented on this connection between human violence and the equation of God’s worshipfulness with coercive power.

This worship of glory arising from power is not only dangerous; it arises from a barbaric conception of God.  I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the bones of those slaughtered because of men intoxicated by its attraction.25

We underrate the importance of religion in human nature if we are not aware of the degree to which people’s emotions and attitudes, and therefore their actions, are determined by their “intoxication” with their perception of the Holy.  We neglect one of our most important tasks as theologians if we do not help them develop a conception and a perception of the Holy Reality that is truly worthy of worship.  I would hope that this is a task upon which many Jewish and Christian theologians could agree and cooperate.26



1 Richard Rubenstein says that the Holocaust raises the question of the practical value of Judaism in the modem world.  He has in mind attitudes that, for the most part, distinguish Judaism from Christianity.  I leave that debate to others.  My discussion concerns the practical value of Judaism only insofar as Judaism and Christianity are similar.

2 Irving Greenberg, “Cloud of Smoke, Pillar of Fire: Judaism, Christianity, and Modernity after the Holocaust,” in Auschwitz: Beginning of a New Era? Reflections on the Holocaust, Eva Fleischner, ed. (New York: KTAV Publishing House, 1977), 7-55.

3 I have discussed this point in A Process Christology (see note 9, this essay), especially ch. 9.

4 David Ray Griffin, God, Power, and Evil: A Process Theodicy (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1977; reprint [with new preface] Lanham: University Press of America, 1991); Evil Revisited: Responses and Reconsiderations (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1991).

5 Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality, Corrected Edition, David Ray Griffin and Donald W Sherburne, eds. (New York: Free Press, 1978), 244.

6 There are at least three senses in which the expression creatio ex nihilo is meaningful from a process perspective.

(1)  Actual entities in process thought are momentary events, termed actual occasions or occasions of experience.  The individuals that endure through time, such as electrons, atoms, molecules, and psyches, are serially-ordered societies of actual occasions.  In a state approaching absolute chaos, there would be no enduring individuals, but merely random actual occasions.  Since by “thing” we normally mean something with stable identity through time, there would be “no-thing” in a state of chaos.  Whitehead called such a state a “nothingness of confusion” (“Immortality,” in Paul A. Schilpp, ed., The Philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead [Tudor Publishing Company, 1951], 691). Accordingly, the creation of order out of chaos would be a creation of a world out of no-thing.

(2) The occurrence of actual occasions involves the actualization of possibilities (pure possibilities are called eternal objects, impure ones are called propositions).  God’s creative agency in relation to an actual occasion involves the proffering of an ideal aim, which is a more-or-less complex possibility for that occasion.  The reception of this ideal possibility for its existence is what gets the occasions own self-creation started.  Now, possibilities are real, but they are not what we usually have in mind when we speak of things that exist.  Whitehead characterized them as having a kind of being that is a kind of not-being (Science and the Modem World [Macmillan, 1926], 254). Consequently, God’s creation of new actual entities can be referred to, in Reinhold Niebuhr’s words, as the creation of “things that are” out of “things that are not” (Beyond Tragedy [New York: Scribner’s, 1939], 9, 149, 217-18).

(3)   In a third meaning of creation out of nothing, the notion of creativity is central. Creativity is certainly not a thing, and can be compared with Buddhist “emptiness” or “nothingness” (see John B. Cobb, Jr., “Buddhist Emptiness and the Christian God.”  Journal of the American Academy of Religion XLV/1 [March 1977], 11-26, and Beyond Dialogue: Toward a Mutual Transformation of Buddhism and Chris-tianity [Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1982]).  From this viewpoint, every actual occasion’s self-creation, out of which its creative impact on others is derived, would originate “out of nothing.”  Deity’s self-creative activity, out of which its creative effects on others is derived, would be the supreme example of this creation out of nothing.

These are three philosophically intelligible and existentially important ways of explicating the ancient intuition that our world is created out of nothing.  (And they are compatible with the at least equally ancient intuition that our world is created out of chaos.)  Process theology, accordingly, does not deny the truth or significance of that intuition; it only protests against the common error of identifying the truth of an intuition with one particular formulation of it—in this case a formulation that was based upon dubious exegesis, that allows no element of truth to the major alternative intuition, and that creates an insoluble problem of evil.

7 In “The Concept of God after Auschwitz,” reprinted in this volume, Hans Jonas presents an idea of God very similar to the one given here: a suffering, becoming, caring, non-omnipotent God. He opts, however, for the position that God created the world out of absolute nothingness, so that God’s lack of omnipotence is self-limitation (even though he rightly points out that the notion of absolute power, not limited by anything, is a senseless concept, because power must be shared).  He evidently accepts this view because it is preferable to the alternatives of which he is aware.  He rightly rejects the idea that the creator is eternally limited by an evil god.  A second possibility, that God is eternally limited by a passive medium, is said to be inadequate to the fact of “positive evil, which implies a freedom empowered by its own authority independent of that of God.”  Jonas has evidently failed to see the third option, according to which the eternal source of resistance to God is not a passive medium, but active energy or creativity.

8 Greenberg, “Cloud of Smoke,” 46; Alexander Donat, The Holocaust Kingdom, Reinhart and Winston, 1965), 100 (quoted by Greenberg 18).

9 David Ray Griffin, A Process Christology (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1973).  In a new preface for a reprint (Lanham: University Press of America, 1991), I point out some of the objections that I now have to the book.  A Christology that I would write today, however, would be even more different than indicated in that preface.  A sketch is provided in a chapter on “Incarnation Through Persuasion” in a work in The Divine Cry of Our Time.  One important change is that, no longer considering it essential to Christian faith to think of Jesus as the “supreme incarnation” and “decisive revelation” of God, I now speak of Jesus as a “special revelation” of God.

10  A Process Christology, 15-148.

11 John B. Cobb, Jr., The Structure of Christian Existence (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1967; reprint, Lanham: University Press, 1990); cf. Cobb’s Christ in a Pluralistic Age (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1976), ch. 8, and Process Theology: An Introductory Exposition, (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1976), chs. 5 and 6 (which were written primarily by Cobb).

12 See David Ray Griffin, “Parapsychology and Philosophy: A Whiteheadian Perspective,” JournaI of the American Society for Psychical Research 87/3 (July 1993),217-88; the chapters on parapsychology and Christology in The Divine Cry of Our Time (see n. 9, above); or Parapsychology, Philosophy, and Spirituality (forthcoming).

13 In the chapter on Christology in The Divine Cry of Our Time, I portray Jesus as a special incarnation of not only this dimension of God, which I there call the “Creative Love of God,” but also of the other two dimensions of the immanent trinity, the “Responsive Love of God” and the “Divine Creativity.”  This change, however, does not affect the point at hand.  Indeed, I explicitly present this account of Jesus as special incarnation of the Holy Trinity as a Christology acceptable in principle to Jews and other unitarians.

14 Quoted in H. Loewe and C. G. Montefiore, eds., A Rabbinic Anthology (New York: Schocken Books, 1974), 34.

15 In the “Twenty-eight Theses of the Saxon Volk Church,” which was written by Walter Grundmann in 1933 and adopted as the platform of the Reichsbewegung Deutsche Christen, one reads: “The strife over whether Jesus was a Jew or Aryan does not reach to the essence of Jesus.  Jesus was not the bearer of human ways, but rather encapsulized for us in his person the being of God” (quoted in James A. Zabel, Nazism and the Pastors [Chico: Scholars Press, 1976], 163).

16 I will try to provide a somewhat more adequate discussion in The Divine Cry of Our Time (see nn. 9 & 13, above).

17 See Pinchas Lapide, The Resurrection of Jesus: A Jewish Perspective (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 19831, 57, 64, 92, 143, 146, 151, 153.

18 For Berkovits, see Faith After the Holocaust (New York: KTAV Publishing Co., 1973). For the views of Roth and Sontag, see Stephen Davis, ed., Encountering Evil: Live Options in Theodicy (Atlantic: John Knox, 1981).

19 In speaking of Christianity’s tendency to deny continuing revelation, Irving Greenberg says: “The desire to guarantee absolute salvation and understanding is an all too human need which both religions must resist as a snare and temptation” (“Cloud of Smoke:, 25).  In spite of recognizing this temptation and of seeing that classical theism as well as classical atheism needs to be transcended, however, Greenberg still holds to the idea of a God who can unilaterally fulfill the promise to bring about ultimate redemption and perfection in this world (37).  Holding to this classical, unreconstructed understanding of divine power leads him to conclude that talk of a God who cares and loves is now obscene and incredible (11, 41-42).  It leads him to declare: “Nothing dare evoke our absolute, unquestioning loyalty, not even our God” (38).  It leads him, therefore, to defend the “revolt against God” (40).  Greenberg is only one of many who show that the vision of a Holy Reality who is perfectly loving and just, and who can thereby appropriately evoke our absolute loyalty, will not be re-created as long as the conception (or image) of divine coercive omnipotence remains unreformed.

20 Greenberg, “Cloud of Smoke,” 33-34.  Greenberg does stress in other passages that the Holocaust cannot be assimilated to “unreconstructed traditional categories” (25) and, in particular, that the understanding of the covenant needs to be reformulated (24, 27).

21 Alfred North Whitehead, Religion in the Making (New York: Macmillan, 19261, IS.

22 Richard L. Rubenstein, The Cunning of History: The Holocaust and the American Future (New York: Harper & Row, 1975).

23 Richard L. Rubenstein, After Auschwitz: Radical Theology and Contemporary Judaism (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1966), 68-69; Power Struggle (New York: Scribner’s, 1974), 66, 94-95. My statements about Rubenstein’s views are based on the books I have cited, which were published some time ago. I have not examined his more recent writings with this question in mind.

24 Power Struggle, 124, 186.

25 Whitehead, Religion in the Making, 54.

26 This is a slightly revised and updated version of an essay that was first written for a conference, “Process Theology and Evil: The Holocaust Experience,” which was co-sponsored by the Center for Process Studies and the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai Brith and held at the School of Theology at Claremont in June of 1980.

Posted July 8, 2007


Return to

Introduction to “Process Theodicy , Christology, and the Imitatio Dei”


David Ray Griffin Page