Ask Dr. Cobb

September 2000 Question

"Process theology presents images of God which are very positive (God works by love, encouragement, persuasion...) but are there others images too? How does process theology understand the anger of God, the notions of devil, Satan...?"

Dr. Cobb's Response

It is quite correct that process theology emphasizes the goodness of God. God is that which can be completely trusted. We can take this position because we believe there is a great difference between what happens in the world and in our individual lives on the one side, and what God aims at moment by moment, on the other. Those who believe that what happens is what God causes to happen must, of course, adopt a much more ambiguous view of God's character.

Even so, there is a danger that the emphasis on God's goodness lead to a somewhat sentimental view. That would be false to our tradition. Whitehead wrote that what God gives us in each moment, the initial aim, "is
the best for that impasse. But if the best be bad, then the ruthlessness of God can be personified as Ate, the goddess of mischief." (PR, p. 244) The language of God's wrath can fit in here. We can trust God to direct us
to the best possible, but we certainly cannot assume that that will be pleasant of desirable!

Process theologians sometimes pick up on Kazantzakis' vision. Here God is seen as pushing and pulling toward some more complex form of existence at great cost to those through whom God seeks this end. In more technical Whiteheadian formulations, God draws us toward new contrasts that involve the sacrifice of earlier assurances. To follow God is repeatedly to die to what we have been in order to rise to what is now possible.

The question points also to the possibility of negative forms of divine reality and power. Does process thought affirm divine beings that work for evil alongside or over against the always trustworthy God? The answer is No. The evil in the world is all too understandable without positing such entities. Inertial resistance to God in the natural world becomes sloth in human beings. It simply expresses how all things would be apart from God's lure. Furthermore, once there is life, there is competition for survival. This is ruthless. The few successful life forms crowd out or kill myriads of others. At the level of sentient life, this involves suffering. God's call to each creature involves acting in such a way as to strive to survive despite the costs to other creatures. The net result is a world that grows richer in value. But this is gained at enormous cost in suffering.

Among human beings, this same tendency to struggle for survival and other advantages continues regardless of the cost to others. In us it becomes sinful, since in our case God calls us to broaden our concern and to seek our good in concert with others rather than at their expense. But we need no special explanation for our resistance to this call.

It is also striking how what is best in us can easily intensify evil. Our relational being leads us to identify strongly with us in a social group. "We" is central to our language and our being. The group commands our
devotion and we are ready to sacrifice for it. This is of great value. Without it human beings (as some species of animals before us) would not have survived.

But when the struggle for survival and other goods shifts from the level of individuals to that of groups it becomes even more destructive. Warfare is its most dramatic expression. God calls us both to loyalty to our own groups and also to appreciation and acceptance of other groups. Response to the first part of this call often blocks sensitivity to the second. The consequences are often terrible.

Of course, with human beings, far more complex forms of evil arise. We can employ the capacity to transcend ourselves in real concern for others to aim at control of others and even at their destruction. We can even
take pleasure in the suffering of innocent people. We do need explanations of these perversions, but process thinkers turn first to students of sociology and psychology for help rather than to students of demonology.

Several process theologians have been impressed by the biblical image of powers and principalities. It seems clear that social structures develop that promote evil and inhibit good beyond the will and control of
individual human beings. They may well be regarded as demonic. Their emergence, however, can be explained without recourse to demons. Only if sociology and psychology turn out to be clearly insufficient, will we turn
to another account.

I leave the door open here. Process theology offers no metaphysical grounds for the denial of evil forces of a personal or quasi-personal sort. For example, some students have found the phenomena called
demon-possession to be best explained in just that way. Although few process theologians have accepted this analysis, it is not to be rejected out of hand. These demons would not constitute a "divine" power of evil,
but they could certainly constitute important creaturely powers of evil.

Like so many questions that many try to resolve metaphysically, process theology treats this one as an empirical issue. We should not quickly accept explanations of this kind, since so much once explained in such ways is better understood in scientific terms. But we should not foreclose such possibilities if the evidence is sufficiently strong. My judgment, as of now, is that the evidence is not sufficiently strong. But I realize that
this may be because I have not examined it with sufficient care.

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