A Couple Notes on Process and Relational Theologies and the Problem of Evil

Pedro_Fernández_-_Christ_Suffering_-_WGA07807Over 20 years ago Ronald Goetz noted the “Rise of a New Orthodoxy” when it came to the doctrine of God being taught in academic theology. God’s immutability, (changelessness), and impassibility (inability to suffer or be acted upon from without), was axiomatic in patristic, medieval, reformational, and even early modern theology, but over the last 100 years a sea-change occurred and an acceptance, even a championing, of God’s passibility or mutability has largely been accepted. Goetz points to four causes, one of which is the problem of evil and suffering in light of the horrors of the 20th Century. (If God is all-powerful then he can stop evil. If all-good then he wants to. Evil. Therefore, no God.) After surveying them, he comes back around to the problem of evil in order to point out the weakness of two sorts of passibilist responses.

One comes from the limited God of Whitehead’s very influential process theology:

If God is conceived as being limited in power, though perhaps unlimited in love, then the defense of God in the light of evil and suffering boils down to the contention that God has created the greatest amount of good that he can, and the evil that remains is beyond his capacity to eliminate. A limited deity of this kind is portrayed in contemporary Whiteheadian-process theology, but the doctrine has a distinguished pedigree going back at least as far as Stoicism. A fundamental assumption in this approach is that an imperfect world is better than no world at all. What is unique to the Whiteheadian version of the limited deity is its departure from the classical Western view that God cannot be affected by the pain of an imperfect world. Indeed, as a seal of God’s goodness and love, God is, in Whitehead’s lovely phrase, “the fellow-sufferer who understands.”

The problem of evil has traditionally been formulated this way: How can it be that God is all powerful and all good and yet there still is evil? The doctrine that God is limited in power solves the problem by sacrificing God’s omnipotence. However, to my mind, any concept of a limited deity finally entails a denial of the capacity of God to redeem the world and thus, ironically, raises the question of whether God is in the last analysis even love, at least love in the Christian sense of the term.

All assertions of a limited deity must confront the fact that, if the world’s imperfections are the inevitable consequences of the limited capacity of God to create a world that is both perfect and free, then inescapably any other realm of being, any eschatological reality, would be similarly flawed. The blessing of eternal life would thus be impossible, for an eternal life flawed by imperfection and suffering would not be redemption, it would be hell. Hell is the prospect of wallowing forever in one’s weakness and finitude.

In Whitehead’s philosophy, the creation of the world is the result of God’s primordial yearning for a concretization of merely abstract possibilities (reminiscent of Plato’s “Ideas”) , which Whitehead calls “eternal objects.” Until they are arranged and concretized in the world, these eternal objects are merely abstractions. God’s primordial nature is governed by a “yearning after concrete fact — no particular facts, but after some actuality.”

The other pole of God’s bipolar being, his “consequent nature, “is characterized by a dependence on the continual emergence of concrete reality or “actual entities” in the world. Actual entities are perpetually perishing and arising. Each successive actual entity is capable of using in its own development the entities that have preceded it. God alone is everlasting. And his being is constituted in the process of his taking into himself all that he is able to save of all actual entities. They thus have a kind of immortality in the memory and in the ongoing self-enrichment of God. But the personal existence of all actual entities perishes. God wills the best for us and is a sympathetic sufferer with us when, in the course of the enrichment of his being, we suffer tragedy; but God alone is the everlasting beneficiary of the creative process.

To modern “protest atheism,” the fact that God, though sympathetic with the suffering of humanity, is nonetheless enriched by it, would seem little more impassive than the bathos of the sentimental butcher who weeps after each slaughter. If the purpose of our life and death is finally that we contribute to “the self-creation of God,” how, an outraged critic of God might demand, does God’s love differ from the love of a famished diner for his meat course?

Whitehead’s process God is, if anything, even more implicated in the evil of evil. Goetz moves on then to insist that if the incapable God doesn’t help, then the kenotic God–”kenotic” being used in a very specific, not-quite-NT-sense–doesn’t help much either:

To my mind, the insistence on the almightiness of God and creation ex nihilo are indispensable for an adequate understanding of the Bible’s witness, both to God’s lordship and to his capacity to save what he has created. Without the Bible’s eschatology, the God of the Bible cannot be understood in terms of agape, the radical self-giving love of one who holds nothing back — not the life of his son, not the sharing of his own being.

But this understanding puts us back on the horns of the dilemma: If God is so powerful in creation and so willing ultimately to deify the creation, why is there now evil?

Two lines of defense have become popular among theologians who find themselves, for whatever reasons, unable to speak of God as ontologically limited and yet unable to affirm the predestinarian highhandedness of an impassible, immutable God.

The first is the so-called Irenaeian theodicy (after the second-century theologian Irenaeus) : God permits suffering and evil in order that by them we might come to sufficient maturity so as to be able to inherit eternal life. The problem with such an argument is that while it offers a very helpful insight into the question of why we suffer and endure hardship, it says nothing about real evil. For real evil, as we experience it, does not build up and develop its victims; it corrupts, corrodes and destroys them.

The other line of defense can easily incorporate the Irenaeian theodicy, and indeed, might even seem to strengthen it. In this view, the statement “God is love” is virtually synonymous with a kenotic (self-emptying) (Phil. 2:7) view of the incarnation. God’s love is supremely revealed in his self-humbling. God is a fellow sufferer who understands not because God cannot be otherwise, but because God wills to share our lot.

Here, as in the case of a limited doctrine of God’s being there is a certain immediate psychological comfort in the notion that God does not require of us a suffering that he himself will not endure. However, if this comfort is to be any more than a psychological prop, it must show how God’s suffering mitigates evil. This explanation has been, to date, curiously lacking in the theodicy of divine self-limitation.

To anyone who feels compelled to affirm divine suffering, the fact that God is deeply involved in the anguish and the blood of humanity forces a drastic theological crisis of thought vis-à-vis the question of evil. The mere fact of God’s suffering doesn’t solve the question; it exacerbates it. For there can no longer be a retreat into the hidden decrees of the eternal, all-wise, changeless and unaffected God. The suffering God is with us in the here and now. God must answer in the here and now before one can make any sense of the by and by. God, the fellow sufferer, is inexcusable if all that he can do is suffer. But if God is ultimately redeemer, how dare he hold out on redemption here and now in the face of real evil?

-Ronald Goetz, “The Suffering God–The Rise of a New Orthodoxy”, This article appeared in the Christian Century, April 16,1986, p. 385

In other words, a suffering God of the sort implied by the passibilists is the God whose redeeming power is in serious doubt and the fact that he feels my pain just isn’t enough sometimes. I want to know that there is a reason for it. I want to know that there is a secure end to it. I want to know that it’s redeemable.

Soli Deo Gloria

PS. If you want my explanation impassibility and how that relates to Christ’s suffering on the cross you can go read it here.