Theodicy and Process Theology


The revised common lectionary recently passed through the book of Job. I have always found Job to be a difficult biblical book to appreciate, and in many ways I was unsatisfied with its conclusion, which seemed to say that ours is not to question the reasoning or ways of an omnipotent God. God simply tells Job, in response to heartfelt and angry response to his personal suffering, that God is powerful and can do whatever he wants to, and it isn't Job's to question this. Job (and we) are somehow supposed to accept this.

The question of why we suffer--why bad things happen to good people--is one that every believer in God has to wrestle with. As it turns out, Dr. John Cobb, a preeminent process theologian who has a monthly online answer column, discussed the view of process theology with respect the problem of theodicy in his June column this year. Cobb points out that process theology provides a way out of this conundrum:

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 is not the final answer to the question, however. Cobb points out the inevitable question that this raises: "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?"

I personally think that there is a crucial assumption that lies behind that question. It suggests that religious faith is grounded in having a divine father figure in the sky who will rescue us from our troubles, that God is "useful" to us to the extent that we can manipulate him to do things for us. But I would argue that this represents a childlike image of God, one that will forever restrict our ability to relate to God in a mature manner. Cobb's answer to this question is long, and it involves an explanation of God's role as a creative partner in the evolution of the world and of life.

The first point that Cobb makes has to do with the origin of suffering. The Bible's creation myths include a story that we are all familiar with--of a Fall in the Garden of Eden, imagining a perfect creation that we sinful humans damaged by disobeying God. Process theology, on the other hand, sees the origin of suffering as a product of the evolution of self-conscious beings in the universe. In a universe that evolved over billions of years, God "called" the world to evolve self-conscious creatures. Cobb points out that this creative activity has inevitably involved a trade off:
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 is, Cobb is arguing, God's trade off: increased value in the development of self-conscious beings, but also the increased possibilities of suffering. This increase in value continued with the emergence of our own species:
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...
God's role in this as a participant in creation was not simply limited to calling forth the emergence of the human species, however. It also is involved in calling us towards making the world a better place--eliminating suffering whenever and where ever we can. Of course, as free participants in creation, we don't always listen:
...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.
In one sense, then, I think the Garden of Eden story has some validity; to the extent that we listen to God, we reduce at least some of the suffering that exists in the world. Obviously, some suffering has nothing to do with human evil--sickness, old age, death, and even simple accidents all bring suffering to our lives without necessarily an evil intent on the part of people. But at every step, God calls us to eliminate suffering--both by acting lovingly towards our fellow humans, and by taking care of each other when we do suffer for reasons beyond our control.

Cobb in the quote above cites some examples of the great prophets in recent human history who have tried to "let justice flow like water". There have been many other prophets as well, throughout history, including many of the Hebrew prophets whose books are found in the Bible. This is, in my view, what the prophetic tradition is all about--listing to God's call. Fighting for justice is a a way of listening to what God is telling us, and of decreasing suffering.

If this is process theology's explanation for the origin of suffering, and if process theology believes that God cannot control the world, then we can approach the question of what use God is to us in a different way. Cobb says, "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." In other words, one of God's "uses" to us is someone we can love because it is God who is the ultimate cause of our having been brought into being. The value of our existence is what we thank God for, despite the suffering.

Cobb further points out that, in process theology, God shares in our sufferings and joys. As he states, "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." Thus we have in God a presence who absolutely and perfectly experiences the fullest possible empathy for what we experience. This means that God is, in my view, the best possible companion. No human being shares in our experiences as perfectly as God does. In contrast to any human being, "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."

Ultimately, though, Cobb argues, the idea of God's "usefulness" is itself absurd.
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.
Cobb acknowledges that much suffering serves no purpose. I am reminded here of the story of Job, whose suffering was the result of a kind of celestial bet between God and Satan, where Job himself was almost a pawn. On a grand scale, I can be reminded of the pointless suffering of millions of people under the Nazi holocaust. On a small scale, I can be reminded of all the individual hurts that make no sense in our world.

Process theology does not try to make sense of this evil by appealing to Leibnitz's "best of all possible worlds" argument. Individual instances of suffering cannot be explained as being somehow part of God's greater plan. On the contrary, as Cobb points out,
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.