Thursday, February 9, 2012

God Can't: Evil & Divinity

In this post, I want to reflect on some of the key issues raised in C. Robert Mesle’s book Process Theology: A Basic Introduction.  I have read the book a couple of times now and it is an excellent, clear introduction to the essentials of process thinking in everyday language. The jargon of Whiteheadian-Hartshornean thought that tends to push laypersons and non-academics away from process theology is at a minimum in Mesle’s text. Even so, he is still able to present the most important components of a process worldview without sacrificing its profound depth of insight. Below I will primarily concentrate on the issue of God’s power and theodicy and then conclude with Thomas Jay Oord's short video on God and evil.

Charles Hartshorne
Mesle begins by grounding process theism in the affirmation that God is love, quoting Charles Hartshorne (author of the excellent "Omnipotence and Other Theological Mistakes") who argues that these three words “are contradicted as truly as they are embodied in the best known of the older theologies.” Essential for being able to genuinely affirm this about God is by criticizing and finally rejecting classical theism’s claims that God is omnipotent, impassible, and immutable. It also requires a redefinition of the meaning of God’s omniscience. All of this follows, however, from rejecting the traditional a priori claim that God is omnipotent. On the contrary, God is essentially limited in a process framework. Mesle writes that “God cannot overrule our freedom, but awaits our free response,” and thus, “God cannot guarantee [any] outcome within this world.” I believe very strongly that rethinking God’s power in this way, as persuasive rather than coercive, as em-powering rather than over-powering, is the only way to be both a theist (in any truly meaningful sense) and provide an adequate response to the problem of evil. In the light of something as tragic as the Holocaust, it seems clear that a God who is both essentially loving and all powerful (e.g., theoretically capable of intervening to stop Hitler) is not a God worthy of worship. But an essentially limited, not a merely self-limited God who faithfully works in every situation for the best overall outcome is one about whom I can say, with the Christian tradition, is authentically loving and good.


One traditional alternative to this process view about theodicy is to say that God has all the power and that anything that happens is predetermined by God – and therefore good since God wills it. This is what Calvinists generally affirm, but it results in having to deny real human freedom. As Mesle points out, Luther also came to this conclusion by affirming God’s absolute omnipotence. Another problem this position raises is that we lose contact with the words good and love, since what is good and loving for God seems to be an absolute mystery to human understandings of these words.  They become meaningless if God's goodness and love are so different from what we mean about them. If God permits the Holocaust to occur despite the power to stop such evils, then what is good and loving for God is clearly nothing like what is good and loving for humans.  To assert otherwise is, to be blunt,
Rabbi Harold Kushner
foolishness.  It is a wonderful way to create atheists.  Here's the bottom line: if one has the ability to stop genocide, rape, murder, or any other evil, we would expect that it is good and loving to use that power to do so.  God obviously does not, so God - if s/he exists - is either lacking in love or power.  True, sometimes pain and suffering brings about growth in us, but as Oord points out in the video below (along with Mesle), this is certainly not always the case.  And as Rabbi Harold Kushner points out in his classic book "When Bad Things Happen To Good People", he would trade all the personal growth he has gained through dealing with the horrible death of his young son if he could have kept his son alive. He would rather have remained an ordinary Rabbi and have been able to keep his son from all the suffering he went through before his death.

Another traditional alternative, popularly argued for by C.S. Lewis, to the process view is to say that God is omnipotent but does not cause our decisions. God only foreknows our supposedly free decisions since God sees time like a pre-written book or vinyl record that is merely playing out before a God who exists outside of time, unaffected by change (note how this assumption is rooted in the dangerous logic of omnipotence!). But Mesle rightly argues that this would not allow for true human freedom: “perfect divine foreknowledge means that real freedom is impossible” because genuine alternatives are ultimately illusory. Instead, “God’s knowledge is constantly changing."

If we take the process perspective, we are able to affirm that God is genuinely loving, good, and also the most powerful entity in existence.  God is the ultimate model of persuasive power and the most-moved mover. God does not know the future except as possibilities but knows the past exhaustively in addition to everything happening in the present. In this sense, God is omniscient since the future does not exist as actuality yet but as mere possibility.  God knows everything there is to know. Moving beyond the logic of omnipotence also allows us to genuinely affirm that God is affected and even changes – that is, God is neither impassible nor immutable. This is precisely what we would expect from a God who is essentially love.

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