Divine Action and the Problem of Evil: POB pt. 3

…it is impossible not to notice how close the concept of the UR at which we have arrived stands to what the theistic traditions have meant by the notion of God. Theists conceive ultimate reality as an infinite personal reality, a reality that has no intrinsic need of the others whom it freely and lovingly creates. We seem then to have arrived at, or close to, a theistic view of UR. Indeed, this theism or almost-theism might also be said to have a “christological tinge,” insofar as it conceives the UR as intrinsically involving the compassionate and self-giving relation to others that is associated in Christian thought, with the character and actions of a particular human being. – Clayton and Knapp pg. 42

This is where Clayton and Knapp have landed after their first two chapters. It could be said that these two chapters serve as a response to the first of five reasons for doubt that the authors raised at the beginning of their book, namely science. Indeed, the author’s arrival at a view of the ultimate reality as a mindlike, personal and benevolent (non)being has come by means of a scientific, or more specifically, a cosmological examination of the universe we find ourselves in.

What about the problem of evil? Does the reality of suffering in the world serve as a barrier to theism? How do Clayton and Knapp deal with this problem?

To answer this question the authors lay out an argument for divine action that is essential to the rest of their argument throughout the remainder of the book. Essentially, it could be summarized as follows:  The purpose (or at least one of the purposes) God created our universe was to bring about the existence of finite rational agents capable of entering into communion with God’s self. It would seem that God has achieved that purpose by creating a universe in which events are consistently governed by the laws of nature. It is hard to imagine how beings with rational agency could evolve in a world without such regularities and laws or, in other words, in a world in which God could intervene and break the laws of nature whenever God pleases.

Let us assume for a second that God can and does break the laws of nature in order to bring about the greater good. For example, let us say that God intervened in order to stop the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004 from ever happening. It must be asked: if God has this type of power why does he not use it more often? Indeed, it would seem that such an action would then require God to act in order to alleviate suffering in any and all instances. Of course, if God did indeed intervene in all instances then we are faced with our first problem once more: a universe without the regularities of natural laws cannot yield rationally autonomous creatures like ourselves.

To summarize: God cannot act in such a way as to break the laws of nature. If he did it once he would be obligated to do it every time and if he did it every time then we would be left with a lawless universe unable to allow for the evolution of rationally autonomous creatures.

If not in this way then how does God act? This will be the topic of my next post.


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.