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.

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

  1. Having read your linked article, I realize I don’t understand impassivity. That said, I have a couple of questions.

    First, you conclude with the valid point that a God whose suffering is *the* point of the Cross is insufficient, because “the fact that he feels my pain just isn’t enough sometimes.” Fair enough, but does a God who sympathizes necessarily have to be divorced from a God who redeems? Or, put another way, does a non-impassive God have to be lacking in an eternal and measured plan?

    For me, the rubber hits the road when the concept of passivity or impassivity is turned towards human subjects. After all, the idea of “passions” and “prepassions” was generated in a religious context in which human impassivity was the final good in life. Such philosophers needed to defend themselves against the charge that they were hypocritical when having passive emotional reactions, and so developed critical inquiries into the nature of human emotions in order to find a line between those emotions that are willed and those which aren’t. To me, it’s not hard to see their descendants in those hermits who literally fled the world, and in monastic practices dedicated towards avoiding emotional engagement. (I am reminded of the first half of Merton’s life, and his later call back towards engagement with the world.)

    Jesus’s life and preaching (and Paul’s), on the other hand, seems aimed not at human impassivity but at a proper orientation of human emotions. He is a man of sorrows, capable of weeping for the death of a friend (even when he was about to restore him to life) and capable of obtaining the extreme bodily emotion of a bleeding forehead. He also echoes David, a man after God’s own heart, and a very passive man (oftentimes not for the better.)

    Obviously, the impassivity of God need not lead to a view where the optimal human being is equally impassive, yet it does seem a doctrine that implies that bodily emotions are a result of the Fall and something to be avoided as much as is possible. It seems to me more likely that bodily emotions are a reflection of the God whose image in which we are made, even if they are limited and imperfect reflections. Speaking of God’s distance from humanity makes sense, since his emotionality will be on a different level from our own. But doing so in terms of an immovable mover seems limiting and “artificial,” an external imposition on the scriptural account.

    None of RevK’s listed verses convinced me that the Scriptures encourage us to think of God as an unmoved mover, either. But again, I see nothing in Scriptures to imply that emotions per se are problematic; indeed, it seems rather more likely that man is emotional because He is made in the image of God, that the proper direction of emotions (agape, love for God and man) drive us towards sympathy with suffering rather than pious passivity in the face of others’ suffering, and that this emotional capacity reflects, however tenuously or associatively, the God whose compassionate nature lead him to die in the person of his son on our account.

    • A few points in response to your few points:

      1. God is not impassive–he is impassible. To say that he is not passible is not to say that God does not have emotions. It is to say that his emotions are perfectly in line with his reason, will, perfect natures, etc. and therefore totally in his control. It is precisely because God is unchanging and impassible that we can be secure in his unchangingly perfect love for fallen humanity. His impassibility is the basis of his compassion, his condescension. No one is advocating an immobile mover. God is not a stone. The point is rather that he is so in act, so perfectly dynamic, he can’t get anymore in act.

      2. Human emotions are not inherently sinful on this view. It does mean that we need to think through two points:
      a. They are human emotions, not divine ones. They are different qualitatively.
      b. The Fall screwed with them.

      3. God has compassion for us. His sympathy is Jesus Christ, the Godman. The point is that the God who doesn’t suffer in himself because of his Triunely perfect nature, takes on a nature capable of human suffering. The irony is that making the divine nature passible robs the incarnation of it’s unique glory and significance. God is not rescuing himself from his own pain in Jesus Christ–he is graciously redeeming us from ours.

      This is far from adequate, but it’ll have to do for now.

      • I’ll have to think on point 3 a lot, and I’m sure more reading will clarify a lot of this.

        Re. (1), I suppose I haven’t seen modern defenses of the impassibility of God. Medieval defenses tend to interpret it in an unmoved-mover mode, and C.S. Lewis (no theologian, I know!) seems to have done at least something to make this notion applicable to modern times.

        Re. (2), I think that one of the purposes of portraits of God is that they model human godliness. Much of the Psalms, for instance, seems to describe the things God hates (and which we ought to hate), and often describes God’s reactions to human activities using emotional terms. But again, I don’t think I yet understand what God’s impassibility would mean in a non-unmoved-mover sense, so I may be objecting to a straw-man that doesn’t exist.

      • Part of it has to do with confusions on the issue of what movement means in Aquinas and such. Also, what did it mean in the discourse of the Fathers. They spoke both of God’s impassibility and his passion for his creatures, but they weren’t dumb. They were re-interpreting the tradition in line with the Biblical narrative.

        I’d like to commend Thomas Weinandy’s book on the subject “Does God Suffer?” as well as this brief summary article by him on it. http://www.firstthings.com/article/2007/01/does-god-suffer-6

        I would also point you to Kevin Vanhoozer’s “Remythologizing Theology” if you can get your hands on it. It’s expensive, but it’s one of my top 10 works of theology period.

  2. Pingback: Short, Admittedly Snarky Follow-Up on Process, Relational theologies and Evil | Reformedish

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