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Ask Dr. Cobb

December 2010 Question

Does God have the power to protect us? If not then what is the point in believing in a God who cannot protect or take care of us?

Dr. Cobb's Response

It is good to have this kind of question posed directly. Probably the first answer from the perspective of process theology should be a quite simple, No, God does not have the power to protect or take care of us. This is the right answer to the question if it means, can God prevent us from being killed in a battle, contracting cancer, committing suicide, being persecuted for our beliefs, or losing our jobs, etc.

This answer is the only alternative to the answer that God has the power to protect us but, however much we seek this protection, frequently does not exercise this power. If we take that answer, we are left to beseech a rather arbitrary or capricious deity to select us for protection from among all the other petitioners. To attribute power to God that God does not exercise even when it is desperately needed creates an insoluble problem of evil. The Bible certainly does not show us that good and faithful people are always protected from harm. Indeed, many of them, including Jesus, are treated very badly and killed precisely because of their faithfulness. We believe it is much better to focus on what God consistently and faithfully does than to try to figure out why a God who could everywhere protect people from harm fails to do so.

What God consistently and faithfully does is not unrelated to our safety and well being, but it is one contribution to what happens, not all-determining. God consistently and faithfully encourages each of us to adopt good habits, to take care of our health, to avoid most dangers, and to live with full responsibility for our family. God is calling others also to drive carefully and to treat us fairly. It is certainly right and proper to ask God to protect us in all these ways if we to seek to align ourselves with God’s purposes for us. Overall, those who open themselves to God’s purposes for them and respond sensitively to God’s call do live longer and healthier and safer lives than those who do not.

One contribution to the happier and healthier (and longer) lives of those who trust God is this trusting attitude itself. This trust is not that nothing bad will happen. That kind of trust usually leads to disappointment and often to anger against God. Such anger can poison our lives. What we trust is that in every situation God is offering to us what good that situation allows. God is always for us, never against us. Even when we reject God, God does not reject us. Believing all this confidently and deeply and living with that assurance in itself gives to our lives a peace that passes understanding and that benefits us both physically and emotionally. But it does not prevent a drunken driver from running over one of our children or a boss who is chiefly concerned with immediate profits from including us in a list of those he lets go in order to prune his expenses. Nor does it prevent our government from engaging in imperial ventures that increase the danger that those who suffer from them strike back at us.

The question focuses on God’s protecting us; so my response has also dealt with this. However, the question also implies that protection from evil is the one good that we seek from God. For process theology, and, indeed, for Christian theology generally, it would not be at the top of the list. We turn to God for guidance even when God guides us into actions that are dangerous. We turn to God for compassionate understanding at a deeper level than is possible for our fellow human beings. We turn to God to gain freedom from habits and addictions that are blocking our creativity and harming others. We turn to God to broaden our horizons and increase our love for others. Such a list could be extended almost indefinitely.

If we go beyond highly personal matters, we turn to God to find some grounds of hope for the future of humanity on the Earth. Today this is particularly important as we find ourselves part of a society that has already exceeded the carrying capacity of the Earth and will not look honestly at the consequences. God has not brought upon us the terrible dangers that now loom before us, but I am sure that God has been working, without much success, to guide us away from the practices that so threaten our future. Much that could have been saved twenty or fifty years ago can no longer be saved. God cannot change that. But God may yet shake us free from the greed that puts corporate profits ahead of the well being of the biosphere.

Serious reflection can have the consequence of undercutting our sense of importance and even of meaningfulness. A major problem here is that the past seems to be nothing. Since every moment of our lives immediately becomes past as soon as it happens, it is hard to see how it can have importance. Of course, if it shapes the next moments, that gives it some importance, but in the longer run, such influence fades into triviality; so what we do seems to be trivial. For both Whitehead and Hartshorne, this threat to the meaningfulness of life raised the central religious question. They both concluded that the past does not become nothing, that it lives on in God. Each moment of our experience in some fragmentary way includes the immediate past and through it some elements from the more distant past. Process philosophy argues that God includes this past fully and forever. What we do makes an everlasting difference in the divine experience.

I have tried to answer the question at the level at which it was asked. But it may be helpful to add a few paragraphs of more metaphysical reflection on what God can and cannot do.

In the process model each momentary occurrence or “actual occasion of experience” is largely the product of its entire past. But it is not entirely that. If it were, we would live in what William James called a block universe. That would be one in which everything is completely determined by the past. In such a universe nothing really new could ever happen. Both James and Whitehead were quite sure that our world is not like that, and the Bible and the Christian tradition agree. I am fully convinced that I have some responsibility for what I do moment by moment and that others also have such responsibility. My ability to change things may be very slight, but it is not inevitable that I simply allow myself to be shaped by the past.

On the other hand, many secular philosophers and scientists are determinists. They do not see any other influence on what happens in each event than the world out of which that event comes. If there is no other influence, then the event must be exhaustively determined by the world that lies in its past.

For the Bible and for process philosophy there is another influence. This influence is God. The Bible does not give us a philosophical account. Whitehead does. Whitehead says that in addition to the causality of the past actual world there is an influence from the sphere of possibility. A momentary experience cannot but be largely shaped by its past; nevertheless, it can supplement that past in more than one way, and it decides among these options. That supplementation affects just how the past functions in the present. For these possibilities to be effective requires the agency of something actual, that is, God.

This means that all freedom and novelty as well as responsibility is God’s contribution to what happens moment by moment. We believe that in every moment God offers us the best possibilities for that moment in its concrete situation. God does not force us to adopt these ideal possibilities. Often what we do falls short of the best that is possible. Often, also, the best is itself quite bad. But our own decisions have something to do with the sorts of possibilities God can offer us. If we respond sensitively to the best that is possible in one moment, this affects the possibilities for the next moment. The same is true if we close ourselves to God and allow the past to determine what we do.

All life is grounded in novelty. Living things include a role for novelty that is absent in inert objects. Thus we may say, quite literally, that God is the giver of life in all its forms. Of course, this includes human life. We owe God our very existence, and quite specifically our life.

To say simply that God cannot protect us from evil may seem to make God unimportant. But if we owe to God our existence and especially life itself, if in every moment God offers us the best possibility for that moment in its actual situation, if God saves our lives within the divine experience, then God’s inability to protect us from all dangers does not seem to render devotion to God pointless.

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