By Thomas Jay Oord
Thanksgiving time is a titillating time for process theists to talk about their atypical perspective of God.
The Thanksgiving season is widely regarded as a time for us to consider for what we are thankful. Whether the setting is private or public, secular or sacred, hundreds of millions express their gratitude to God. Often, even the day’s newscasts are laden with words of Holy appreciation.
For what, however, are we to thank God? What credit is due the divine?
One group verbalizing thanks to God this time of year consists of those who consider religion a mere form of language without a Referent. There is no Holy Reality, they say, to which their rituals relate. Theology is finally nothing more than anthropology. Giving thanks to God is merely an expression of our shared need to express our cognizance that life is not entirely within our control. Although those in this camp can utter the words, "Thank you, God," their disbelief that a Being exists to whom they should be grateful makes their theological sleight of hand far from enchanting.
Many who are eager to express indebtedness at Thanksgiving boast formal theological ties either to the Reformed tradition of Protestantism or to Roman Catholicism. A closer look at the philosophical theologies undergirding these traditions, however, leads one to wonder about the enthusiasm of these tradition’s adherents. The God of these classical theisms is either the direct or indirect cause of every occurrence. This means that when someone from this tradition utters the words, "Thank you God for _____," one can fill in the blank with any event whatsoever. Such events may include occurrences of joy and hope, or they may include those events that are utterly evil and horrific. The God of these classical theisms is responsible for respect and rape, peace and pain, havens and holocausts. To be sure, most in this tradition express gratitude at Thanksgiving only for those events they deem good; reminding them that their God is also responsible for the evils of life is likely to dampen their holiday spirit.
It seems, at least at first glance, that those theists in the classical free-will traditions can sidestep the theological potholes other believers encounter at Thanksgiving time. After all, they draw upon a tradition that thanks God for benevolent acts, while blaming free human agents for evil. A closer look at the doctrines of classical free-will theism, however, brings one to conclude that the God of this theological hypothesis is ultimately culpable for evil. After all, the deity of this theism has the capacity to prevent genuine evils and yet refuses to do so. The God who has the capacity to control all things entirely is ultimately culpable for all things. Although creatures may be the ones initiating evil in the classical free-will theism, the God of this hypothesis is responsible for what occurs by virtue of this divinity’s capacity to veto any event unilaterally. In the end, then, those in the classical free-will traditions can plug any event into the “Thank you God for _____” phrase, because the God they espouse either enacts or allows every event.
Unlike those embracing the theological visions discussed above, process theists can celebrate Thanksgiving free from theoretical entanglement. The God of process theism acts lovingly in each moment without trumping creaturely freedom, because all creatures are essentially free. No one, not even God, can override or withdraw this capacity for self-determination. The loving actions of deity in each moment result in God’s offer of a spectrum of possibilities to each creature for response. Not only does God offer possibilities for action, deity also entices creatures to respond to that offer by actualizing the best possibility among those proposed. The genuine evil in the world results from the choices these essentially free creatures make running contrary to divine wishes. The good in the world results from, first, the actions of God and, second, the choices creatures make to actualize those possibilities God most desires to be instantiated. Therefore, a process theist can, without scruples, offer thanks to God for inspiring the created order to act in love, peace, and beauty.
Oh God, in deepest gratitude, we say “Thank You” for all the good you have done and for inspiring us to respond to your perfect goodness. Amen.
Thomas Jay Oord is professor of theology and philosophy at Northwest Nazarene University, Nampa, Idaho. He is theologian for the Institute for Research on Unlimited Love and serves as academic correspondent and contributing editor for Science and Theology News. As well as being a professor, author, and researcher, he serves his faith tradition as an ordained minister.