More Musings on the Process-Openness Debate

As I stated in a previous post, Pinnock’s main critique of process theology is that it is more committed to the philosophical presuppositions of Whitehead and Hartshorne than it is to the biblical text itself. I’m on board with him. I’m not in a place where I am going to favor modern philosophical metaphysics over the biblical metaphors and imagery. Indeed, I’m realizing that nearly all of the implications that I affirmed out of a process-relational theology can be affirmed within the openness view:

Whereas process theology understands existence in terms of being in relationship with an “other” and therefore sees God and matter existing in some sort of eternal dualism, open theology affirms creation out of nothing based not on Gen. 1, but instead on passages like Hebrews 11:3. God does not need an “other” to exist relationally because he exists in perfect community within himself (a point that Pastor Brian graciously emphasized in response to my first post on this subject). Open theology is inherently trinitarian in this respect. All this to say, there is nothing in open theology’s understanding of creation that would rule out theistic evolution which is a main concern for me.

I’ve already mentioned that open theology is founded on the notion of God as primarily loving and relational. Therefore, one does not need to be a process theologian to avoid the disgusting assumption that God has predetermined everything making us merely automatons with only a “perceived” freedom.

What’s more, understanding sin as harm or violence really comes out of one’s reading of the commands of Jesus. A serious reading of each command through the lens of the harm ethic yields positive results. Again, process theology is not needed at this point.

Panentheism is the only aspect of process theology that cannot be affirmed by open theism since open theism holds to a strict ontological difference between God and his creation. I hold to what is known as Christian panentheism which still distinguishes between God and creation but understands all of creation to be infused with the creative activity or energy of God. This understanding of God’s relationship to the world is popular in Eastern Orthodoxy. The language of panentheism is helpful in articulating the imminence of God as well as our dependence on his continued creative activity. It also is helpful in the ecological conversation. If God is as intimately involved in the workings of the cosmos as panentheism holds then we ought to think twice about the way that we interact with the planet. This is, I suppose, a small departure from strict open theism, however, for the reasons I articulated above I’ve sort of excused the departure.

I suppose what I’m getting at is that at this point in my journey open theology is more attractive to me than process theology.

However, the most stinging critique of open theology from a process perspective is its failure to “fully” deal with the problem of evil. It must be mentioned here:

Process theology limits God’s power to strictly persuasive which means that he can never act unilaterally. In other words, God’s only hands are our own hands. God can only act in the world by persuading us to pursue the good in all things. Limiting God to only persuasive power makes us, as opposed to God, responsible for most evil in the world (natural evils happen independently in process thought as a result of the interdependence of creation). Evil exists because humans fail to respond to God’s wooing towards a more loving, peaceful reality. Although it does not take the biblical narrative seriously, this is the single most attractive part of process theology for me right now because of its ability to deal with evil. Open theology, on the other hand, although still affirming God as primarily persuasive, sees God as possessing the ability to act unilaterally or with coercion (which is why open theism can still affirm miracles–understood as a break in the natural order of things caused by God’s intervention). For the sake of love God has chosen to limit his power so that he can engage in meaningful, loving relationships but the power to coerce still exists in God within the open view.

Process theology’s critique follows logically:

“If we believe that God is all-powerful we are driven against all our best values and common sense (whether we mean to or not) to argue that rape, famine, plague, child abuse, and cancer ultimately must be good in God’s eyes or else God would have prevented them. At the very best, we are driven to say that it is good for God to allow us to rape, starve, abuse, sicken, enslave, drug, and destroy ourselves and each other in the name of freedom. We are forced by the old idea of God’s power to say that what is morally right for us (protecting the innocent, healing the sick) is morally wrong for God to do (except one time in ten million when God graciously performs a miracle)” (Mesle 22).

This, as I noted above, is a tough critique to swallow. Open theology does not explicitly have an answer when it comes to understanding why God allows evil to occur if he could technically stop it. The two philosophical alternatives, however, are not really options for me given the witness of Scripture. Classical theism sees God as the author of evil since he predetermines everything. Process theology limits the power of God so that he is not culpable.

What can be said at this point is that we are not the only ones to have struggled through this difficult question. Pinnock says it well: “I am forced to say that God has made a commitment to the creation project that constrains his actions. The positive side of it for me is that I line up with Israel’s counter-testimony, which bombards God with questions–How long, God, will you hide your face? Why do you stand far off? Where are you when we need you?” (149). These are questions asked by a community who understands that their God is powerful enough to intervene but for some reason is not. What we can learn from Israel’s relentless questions and the fact that we find them in our canon of Scripture is that God approves of his people asking him difficult questions. In our apparent confusion and disillusionment, God invites us to wrestle with him. There is some solace here.


5 responses to “More Musings on the Process-Openness Debate

  1. Friends,
    I apologize for not having followed open theology. But I would like to ask a question which I wish I had asked of John Hick. Hick recognized that for his approach to divine self restraint (his free will defense of evil) to work, God had to COMPLETELY stay out of it. Having created the world, God could NEVER intervene. A single supernatural intervention to save a single person, would mean that God had to save everyone. Only a completely hands off policy would be consistent. I never asked John if that meant he was a deist. It just sounds like classic deism. The early modern deists were driven by their desire to make the clockwork, atoms-in-a-void view, of science be consistent. No miracles. Are open theologians doing the same thing driven by a desire to justify the evil in the world? Are you deists to be consistent with a free will defense, just as early modernists were deists to justify their scientific approach? Again, I apologize for not having following open theology. Probably you have answered this question long ago, but I’d be grateful for a response?

    • Hi Bob,

      Thanks for the question.

      I don’t think “deistic” is the right way to describe open theology’s view of divine action. As you’ve said, deism imagines God to be far off and aloof, unwilling to ever intervene in the stuff of creation. Open theology would say the opposite: God is intimately involved in what goes on in creation, however, he is involved in such a way that does not compromise free will. Thus, Open theology employs similar language as Process theology when it comes to God’s “persuasive” rather than “coercive” power. The thing is, in Open theology, God still has coercive power. Technically God could intervene in order to cause supernatural events to occur, however, he chooses not to because it would compromise the free will of creation which is required for genuine relationship to take place between creator and creation. It’s for this reason that I don’t think Open Theism can avoid HIck’s critique. If God has the ability to prevent evil from happening but chooses not to (which is what Open Theism asserts) then, at the end of the day, he’s morally culpable.

      So whereas Process says God could not act coercively even if he wanted to, Open theology would say that God has chosen not to act coercively (but he could if he changed his mind). Both frameworks say that God is involved in creation persuasively which is why I don’t think either is deistic.

      I should note that in my studies I’ve yet to come across Open theology literature that talks about how God relates with non-human parts of creation. It almost seems like Open theology subscribes to the Cartesian dualism that draws a sharp distinction between the human and non-human parts of the created order. In other words, I’m not sure if God’s persuasive power in Open theology goes all the way down to animals, plants, atoms, etc. It seems like Open theology is primarily concerned with how God relates to human beings since this is the relationship that is focused on in the Biblical narrative.

      I hope this clarifies things a bit for you.


      • Garrett,
        Thanks. That is helpful. Again, I apologize for not having followed Open theology before, since I’ve know it was out there. Thanks for your patience.

        My father taught me to do theology by asking “What would a truly loving God be like? and What would a truly loving God be doing in the world?” Along the way, I’ve come to suggest to people that God ought to be at least as loving as my mother, who would never stand by and watch needless suffering which she could prevent.

        I confess that I don’t find the free will defense at all persuasive as long as God can intervene coercively. It is a good thing if God chooses to be persuasive, but we humans very commonly feel that it is not only right, but morally obligatory, to act coercively to prevent rape, child abuse, murder, etc. I often ask students to make a list of things they would feel morally obligated to prevent if they had the power to do so. They can make a long list which we discuss together. Then I point out that since these things do actually happen, then if God could prevent them but chooses not to, we are picturing God as having values almost the opposite of our own deepest values, our own best understanding of love. What our own sense of love, after careful reflection, would call us to do, we say God’s sense of love does NOT lead God to do. Why should we picture God this way? Because, when it comes to God, we seem to care more about raw power than about love.

        I can see that Open theologians, as with many others, are honestly grappling with this dilemma. I respect that effort, and apologize that I haven’t been following it. But for me, process theologians are way out in front, choosing to fundamentally redefine divine power in order to preserve meaningful divine love.

        Your point about the non-human world is important. Thanks for mentioning that. Here again, I think process theology is way out ahead of other approaches. God can work lovingly and meaningfully with the whole world.

        Finally, perhaps in another post, I am increasingly raising my voice that it is not enough to choose persuasion over coercion. We need to broaden our vision to discuss RELATIONAL POWER vs UNILATERAL POWER. Where people committed to unilateral power seek to affect others without being affected by them, people committed to relational power engage very differently. Relational power, briefly, is 1. the ability to be actively and intentionally open to others and the world; 2. the strength to be self-creative in integrating what is received with the best one already knows & values, and 3. the persistence love to try and sustain relationships by responding to others by having first been open to them.

        I would think Open theologians might be very interested in exploring the implications of this difference. In the view of process theologians (though they haven’t been saying this) GOD HAS INFINITE RELATIONAL POWER, not unilateral power.

        Persuasion and coercion will find their place in that broader rethinking of power. I have more work to do to get that conversation more attention.

        Thanks again for your comments, and patience with me.

  2. Bob,

    After grappling long and hard Open Theism’s perspective on matters such as the nature of God and the problem of evil, I too have come to find its answers unsatisfactory. Since the writing of this post I have become more and more convinced that the Process perspective is much more helpful when it comes to understanding how God acts in the world. Your writing along with the writing of other Process thinkers has been a huge influence on my own thinking. In fact, I just recently finished your introduction to Whitehead’s thought which I found to be extremely helpful. Thanks for your work and thanks for being willing to interact with my own ideas on the blog!

    All the best,


    • Garrett,
      Thanks. You are very kind. I’m sorry I didn’t stumble on your blog earlier.

      I’m in an odd place in the discussion. I am not a theist. But I think that process theism is such a powerful and ethically beautiful vision of reality that I am always glad to promote it. After all, I don’t claim to know the truth about God, so I’m quite happy for their to be lots of good theists out there promoting good visions of divine love. I seem to spend more energy on that than on my own non-theistic vision. Strange world.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s