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Ask Dr. Cobb

May 2003 Question

In the midst of an online ecumenical dialog last night, there was a discussion on evil and whether G-d is capricious/fickle at times by standing by at times and not intervening. Specifically the discussion turned toward Hitler and Hussein.

My understanding of process theology is quite limited at the time, but I'm interested in understanding how it would work with this. The point was brought up that sometimes we just have to learn the hard way and that God works within the limits that we set so we at times 'tie God's hands.' Would this be an accurate statement?

Dr. Cobb's Response

Why does God not intervene in the face of historical evil?

From time to time public events occur of such horrific magnitude that people are driven to ask  why God allows them.  They may know in a general way that a good many theologians have taught that God grants us freedom and that God's purposes in creating us would not be fulfilled if God took that freedom away from us too easily.  We would not learn to take responsibility for our own actions.  But when historical evil rises to really terrible levels, this argument ceases to seem adequate.  To take away Hitler's freedom would seem a minor price to pay, if it would save millions of Jewish lives.  To take away Saddam Hussein's freedom, if thereby the horrendous suffering of the Iraqi people could have been avoided, as well as the international crisis caused by his intransigence and the American conquest of Iraq , would seem a small price indeed in comparison with the likely gain.  Why does God sit idly by?

Process theologians believe there is no answer to this question as long as the idea of God's omnipotence is left intact.  Those who believe they can maintain God's omnipotent by arguing for God's self-limitation often think they have solved the problem.  In their view, God could control everything, but from the beginning God chose to limit God's role in the world.  They conclude that God judged that it would be better to leave space for creaturely freedom, and God never goes back on this decision.

There are several problems with this position.  First, it is easier to think of a better decision for the omnipotent God to have made.  God could have decided to make space for creaturely freedom within limits.  This is what sensible parents do for their children.  They let their children make more and more of their own decisions as they grow older, but as long as they are children, these parents are prepared to intervene to prevent them from seriously harming themselves and others.  We would arrest a parent who acted in the way here attributed to God.  Presumably an omnipotent God could have made a decision more like that of  good parent and acted upon it with infinite wisdom.

Secondly, the whole idea of God's action in history is undercut if this decision of God means that God is not involved in human actions.  Indeed, it is hard to reconcile a doctrine of the incarnation with this decision.  The problem is that, on the other hand, once any exception is allowed, the question arises why there are not others.

There is an alternative here.  In the history of theology a great deal has been made of God's persuasive work with human beings in the world.  The decision not to interfere might leave open the possibility that God would work persuasively, but not coercively.  God's activity in history, even the incarnation, could be understood on this basis.

Even so, the first question remains.  Why, in extreme cases, when so much is at stake does God not intervene forcefully to prevent extreme forms of evil?  If God has the power to do so and refrains just to be faithful to an unwise decision made long ago, it is hard to admire such a foolishly stubborn God and even harder to love God.

The underlying premise of all of this is divine omnipotence.  It is because people suppose that God could do anything, that they marvel that such terrible things happen.  Classically, the situation was much worse.  Omnipotence meant to many Christians not only that God could act in any way but also that ,in fact, God did act in just the way that events
actually transpire.  If God has all the power, they reasoned, whatever happens is ultimately what God wills to happen.  Then God did not simply sit idly by while Hitler and Saddam committed their atrocities.  Those atrocities were willed by God.  That makes it even harder to love God!  The doctrine of divine self-limitation was invented to reduce the contradiction between the reality of overwhelming evil and the teaching that God is love.

Process theology flatly rejects the idea of omnipotence that underlies all this discussion.  Some  process theologians redefine omnipotence as ideal power rather than all-controlling power, and then explain it in quite a different way.  Others just reject the doctrine of omnipotence as such.  We believe that God is very powerful, but that God's power is not the sort of power envisaged by those who ask these questions about God and give these answers.

For process theology God persuades and does not coerce.  This is not simply a decision that could at any time be reversed, so that we are led to wonder why God has not intervened coercively,  On the contrary, we believe that the God we know in Jesus Christ is the power that empowers, gives freedom, and guides.  It is the power that makes for life, for healing, and for growth.  It is the power through which understanding and wisdom arise.  It is the power by virtue of which there is an awareness of better and worse and loving relations among people.  Without this power we would not be at all.  But this power brought us into being through millions of years of evolution, and there is no reason to think that this method was arbitrarily chosen.  Since divine power is persuasive, and since creatures are typically resistant, it takes millions of years to bring such creatures into existence.

How we use the expanded freedom that comes with our humanness is a matter of great import.  God calls us to use it with a view to the wider good, but we often resist.  The vast expansion of technological power over nature to which we have come renders us capable of ever greater evil.  God's persuasive work becomes ever more important.  Indeed, it is our only basis for historical hope.  But it guarantees nothing.

Hence, the questioner's formulation is correct.  God can only work in the concrete situations of the world.  Those situations, often shaped extensively by our sinful decisions, "tie God's hands".  God can bring some novelty, some healing, some transformation to any situation, if we allow that to happen.  But the novelty, healing, and transformation God can bring are always closely tied to the specificity of the situation.

God does not stand by and watch Hitler and Saddam and others commit atrocities.  God calls for very different behavior.  But many throughout history have hardened their hearts.  Sadly, many do so today.  Many who sensitively deplore every injury and death that befalls American troops seem unable to extend equal concern to the Iraqi people.  As Jesus made very clear, God calls us toward the expansion of our sympathy and toward actions that express that expansion.  As our world grows smaller, if we continue to refuse that call, the consequences will be more and more catastrophic.

Some Christians are shocked by the denial to God of controlling power.  They suppose that the idea of God's almighty power is central to the biblical vision.  But they are mistaken.  Given the many biblical authors who wrote over a long period of time, one must acknowledge that there are many views of divine power in the Bible.  But the idea that God is almighty comes to us mainly through the decision of translators to replace one of  the proper names for God, El Shaddai, with God Almighty.  This is a quite arbitrary replacement.  Nothing in the Bible warrants it.

Process theologians believe that God's power is revealed in and through Jesus.  We believe that Paul understood it well.  If so, the idea that God's power is controlling is quite discordant.  God's power is the power of love.

There is another way in which process theologians believe God acts.  This is by receiving the creatures into the divine life.  Traditionally, God was thought to be impassive, that is, unaffected by what happens in the world.  The biblical God and the God of process theology is infinitely sensitive to what happens.  We believe that what is revealed in Christ is a God who is always present with us, who suffers with us in our sufferings, and who rejoices with us in our joys.  God was not standing by while millions of Jews were exterminated by Nazis.  God was with them in the camps, experiencing their tortures with them, and dying with them in the gas chambers.  The power to be with us in this way is a very great power.  In its ideal form it is uniquely divine power.

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