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Ask Dr. Cobb

June 2006 Question

Please explain God’s reason and the nature of suffering as defined in process theology.

Dr. Cobb's Response

The problem of theodicy is so basic that we need to approach it again and again from different points of view. It may be the theological issue that confronts believers with the greatest personal urgency. If a believer has any sense that God is responsible for what happens in the world, and then encounters suffering in a vivid way, the question is inescapable: why does God allow this?

Process thought softens the question by emphasizing that God does not control what happens. God always confronts a real world that is not of God’s choosing. God works for the best outcome possible, but it may be that none of the possible outcomes are good. All of them may include a great deal of suffering, and this suffering may be most severe with those who deserve it least.

This seems to be true of the whole world today. At this point there is no way to prevent a great deal of suffering due to global warming. If humanity had responded quickly when scientists first identified this danger, extremely serious problems might have been avoided; but we did not. Although the many arguments put up against action have largely collapsed, our response is still drastically inadequate to do more than slightly slow the pressures we put on our environment. The global system seems to be such that feed-back loops will accelerate the process of climate change.

Everyone will suffer, but the suffering will be unevenly distributed. The poor who are least mobile will suffer most as a rising sea level inundates populous deltas. They will be the ones least able to protect themselves from the spread of diseases. As prices for food and other necessities rise, it will of course be the poor who do without. The rich who have caused the global warming will be able to avoid, or at least postpone, the worst consequences.

How can we relate this terrible prospect to any kind of belief in God?  If God cannot prevent drastically unjust suffering of this kind, of what use is God?  These are the questions that process theologians must face. To respond let us put the question positively, in terms of what we, as process theologians, understand God to have been doing and is now doing.

In general terms, God is calling creatures to realize what value is possible in whatever situation they find themselves. This calling over billions of years transformed the surface of the earth from barren rock to a rich biosphere productive of innumerable forms of life. This, of course, did not reduce suffering. On the contrary, there was no suffering before the advent of life, but with every advance in sensitivity, suffering increased. The evidence before us is that God aims at the increase of value even when that involves also the increase of suffering. This suffering can be very horrible. Some scientists, such as Darwin, lost their belief in God as they reflected about the suffering that parasites sometimes inflict on their hosts.

This divine calling finally brought human beings into existence. Our appearance on the scene increased the total value in the world. Most process theologians think the increase was very considerable. It also increased enormously the amount of suffering, partly through the suffering inflicted by humans on other creatures. For example, the way we raise animals for meat causes more suffering in domestic animals than other animals ever inflicted on each other. But the additional suffering goes far beyond that. Humans have exploited, enslaved, maimed, tortured, and slaughtered other humans on a scale that is incomparably greater than ever could have occurred among those creatures humans choose to call “beasts.” Also, humans are, we believe, capable of greater depths of suffering than any other creatures. And finally, humans can and have destroyed their habitat along with that of other creatures to an extent previously inconceivable. The example of global warming is but one example.

Despite all this, the evidence is that God supports the rise of conscious reflection and complex emotions that humanity brought into the biosphere. But that does not mean God simply observes it from a distance. God has always worked to direct the activities of this new species, through each of its members, away from mutual destruction and toward the broadening of horizons. The pressure on individuals to conform to norms derived from the survival needs of the communities in which they exist is very great. God also supports the aim at survival. But God has called human beings to think of others, even those outside their own communities, even others not yet born. God has had some success. Hundreds of millions now subscribe to teachings of those who have invited them to live out of this wider vision. These official beliefs do have some influence on the lives of many. Sometimes this wider vision breaks through to substantial historical influence as in Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and Nelson Mandela. But as Jesus noted, the established authorities, the rich, and the powerful find it particularly difficult to listen to this call when, as is usual, it threatens the status quo. Children and prostitutes are more likely to do so.

The interaction between human resistance to God’s call and the physical reality of the world, which those profiting from present practices choose to ignore, generates a situation in which suffering is inevitable. That does not mean that God ceases to call us. Suffering is inevitable, but it may yet be reduced. If we do not heed the call, our responses to the inevitable suffering may only magnify it further. For example, in quarrelling over what is yet available to us to meet our material desires, we may engage in nuclear war the results of which could end our human story. At the other extreme, the crisis in which we are all plunged could bring us together as human beings for the first time, to work together to deal as humanely as possible with those who suffer. I have no doubt as to the future toward which God is now calling us. How much chance there is that we will listen and follow is another question.

What formal statements can we make now about God and human suffering?  God does bear responsibility for human suffering in the sense that apart from God there would be no humans or any other beings capable of suffering. If we share with God the view that the increase of value, despite the accompanying increase of suffering, is a worthy goal, then we can love and worship the God whose creative work has brought us into being.

Human beings have a far wider range of choices than do the other creatures with whom we share the planet. Hence, God’s call with us takes on a moral character. God calls us to broaden our horizons so as to include in our consideration the consequences of our action for a wider and wider future. This makes it possible for us to “love our enemies.” Sadly, it does not ensure that most of us will actually do so. We have for millennia experienced the horrors of not doing so. We have had a few magnificent indications of what is possible when we do so. It is not impossible that we will become more responsive to God. We can hope for a world in which suffering, and especially unjust suffering, will be much less prevalent.

Process theology emphasizes another side of the relation of God to suffering. For many centuries, despite biblical teaching, official Christian theology taught that God is immutable and, therefore, cannot be affected by our suffering. It was affirmed that even Jesus’ suffering on the cross could not affect God and, therefore, that Jesus’ divine nature did not suffer. Process theologians have been in the lead it rejecting this part of traditional teaching. More and more Christians realize that this idea of divine impassibility was imposed on the Bible from a philosophical teaching that we no longer see any reason to accept. Process thought is distinctive among these theologies chiefly in that it provides a philosophical explanation and grounding for the view that God suffers with us in our suffering -- and also rejoices with us in our joys.

This results from Whitehead’s doctrine of prehension. A prehension is the way that the feelings of one occasion participate in constituting its successors. The best example to consider is the way your emotion in one moment is carried into the next moment. Whitehead says that one occasion of your experience prehends the preceding occasion. The previous experience flows into the new one. We can also describe this in terms of empathy. One experience has empathy for the preceding ones. It also feels the feeling in various parts of the body empathetically. One feels the ache in a tooth achingly. This empathy for our own immediate past and the experiences in our own bodies can also extend to those we love and, to some extent, imaginatively, even to those we do not personally know. In God who is everywhere, empathy with the creatures embodies in prehending them is universal.

So what about the charge that, if God cannot prevent suffering, God is of no use?
Process theologians strongly disagree. It would be like saying that if parents cannot save their offspring from all suffering, they are of no “use.” I employ this analogy because it is the one that comes most naturally to Christians. Our parents have given us life with all its joys and sorrows. Ideal parents are always guiding and encouraging their children toward the good. They are there for their children whether the children in fact seek the good or not, and certainly when they fail to attain it as much as when they succeed. Their children’s suffering causes them suffering. The parents rejoice with their children in their joys. True, they do not prevent them from suffering, often unjustly. But that does not mean that they are of no “use.”

Obviously, human parents fall far short of these ideals even when they participate in them to some extent. In their case self-interest is often in tension with concern for the children. While they really care for their children they may also exploit them to boost their own egos. In God these limitations do not apply. This is not, from the process perspective, just a projection of our wishes on to the heavens. On the contrary, the nature of God is such that the tension between self-love and other love cannot exist. It is in and through creatures that God achieves the divine realization of value. Our good is God’s good. Also the factors that make all human empathy imperfect are not found in God.

Of course the word “use” cheapens the whole discussion. We do not praise and worship God because God is useful to us. We worship because God is worshipful, and we try to serve God out of the love and gratitude that God evokes. We seek to hear God’s call because we know that call is to what is truly and ultimately the good. We know that apart from God our situation is truly hopeless. God is our hope for a better world. We know that whatever happens, all that we have been and now are, will still matter because it matters to God. God saves us from meaninglessness.

God does not prevent suffering, but even suffering can be endured more easily when we know that we are not alone. Much suffering is not redemptive and cannot be redemptive either of us or of others. But some suffering can have positive results. God works in and through it to deepen our sensitivity to others, to hone our awareness of God, and to appreciate life and human companionship more fully. Indeed, the suffering involved in empathy with the suffering of others contributes to the richness and depth of our experience overall as well as giving a positive direction to our work.

Process theologians do not use arguments of this sort to imply that all that looks evil to us is, in fact, good in the whole picture. Much that looks evil to us is truly evil, countering God’s purposes in the world. But because of God, much even that is truly evil can also be transformed in a way that wrings from it some good. As we face the onslaught of so much that is truly evil, we must do all we can to find ways to wring from evil such good as it allows. God makes that possible.

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