God, Creation, and Theology – A Few Questions
A few weeks ago Rachel Held Evans put up a guest post at her blog by Tripp Fuller and Bo Sanders called Is God Omnipotent?. The dialogue on that post along with the reading I have been doing in preparation for next week’s Emergent Village Theological Conversation on Process Theology has been percolating in my head of late. And by percolating, I mean bringing up a bunch of questions that I barely have the language to even ask but would love to engage in dialogue about. Hence this post. Please forgive my ignorance as I attempt to formulate some questions and I welcome (plead for) your responses to help me work through some of these issues.
My main questions involve the nature of God and creation. Is God transcendent? If God is the all-powerful creator does that necessarily imply that God created evil? Did God impose Godself onto humans or call humans into God?
In reading the proponents of Process Theology, I encounter the assumption that to believe God to be an all-powerful transcendent creator is to imply that God imposes God’s will onto the earth and so therefore one must also believe that evil and injustice are part of God’s will. As John Cobb writes in reference to Whitehead,
The understanding of God as Creator has been closely related to the idea that God is in control of the world. Both the way the world is and what happens in it are thought to be directly or indirectly an expression of God’s will and purposes. … The idea of a ‘transcendent creator, at whose fiat the world came into being, and whose imposed will it obeys, is the fallacy which has infused tragedy into the histories of Christianity and of Mahometanism’.” 114
Opponents of the Process view clarify though that this imposition of order is not what is meant by a transcendent God. As Rowan Williams has written,
From human chaos God makes human community. But this act is not a process by which shape is imposed on chaos: it is a summons, a call which establishes the very possibility of an answer… But what creation emphatically isn't is any kind of imposition or manipulation: it is not God imposing on us divinely willed roles rather than the ones we 'naturally' might have, or defining us out of our own systems into God's. (68-69)
Similarly Kathryn Tanner appeals to Irenaeus to assert that a true understanding of transcendence has nothing to do with coercive dominance, but instead holds liberating potential.
From what I can gather both sides are accusing the other of worshiping a God that imposes his (and the masculine is important here) will upon creation. In demonizing the other view as such they fault each other for not properly dealing with the problem of evil. Imposed will seems to always imply God’s sanctioning of evil. The Process Theologians just place that imposition in the idea of transcendence because something apart and above can only impose on what is below. More classical theologians place the imposition in the shaping of a pre-existent primordial chaos that is in competition with God and therefore must have form imposed upon it. Despite accusing each other’s basic conception of God as implying that God wills evil, the way both advocates for and opponents of the Process view seem to reconcile the problem of evil seem surprisingly similar (in parts at least).
Process theologian Marjorie Suchocki suggests that "perhaps God creates not as a power over an inert matter molded into form, with a single purpose, but as a power with all matter, present to it, pervading it with presence, with multiple purposes" (4). This is a God that is with and amidst creation giving it purpose while not having to be held responsible for the evil in creation. Bruce Epperly expands on this witness of God and creation stating that God "never abandons our imperfect world, but seeks to transform the suffering of the world, persuasively and persistently over the long haul, into beauty of experience" (55). God is at work with the world, not imposing God’s will upon it, but (as I read it) as one in solidarity with the world, suffering along with it because of that solidarity.
Interestingly, Rowan Williams, who would uphold God’s transcendence but not a suffering God, also argues for God being-with humans as explanation of how God calls humans to God’s will and yet does not impose evil. He argues that that unlike Process theologians we should not assume a "undialectical affirmation of God's identity with the cosmic continuum" for that simply replaces an imposing masculine idea of God with a preexisting feminine one (78) (see Catherine Keller’s description of the tehom, “No One rules or precedes this ineffable All-Mother” (15)). Williams instead speaks of the importance of the difference – not of hierarchical difference but of the difference of a yet transcendent God that exists for the sake of humans (by nature yet not necessity). Williams writes,
Authentic difference, a being-with, not simply a being-in, difference that is grounded in the eternal being-with of God as trinity, is something which sets us free to be human – distinctively human, yet human in co-operation with others and with an entire world of differences. To know that our humanness is not functional to any purpose imposed from beyond is to know also the folly and blasphemy of treating portions of the human race as functional for the lives of other human beings (which is why this perspective ultimately reinforces a serious feminist critique, as well as having implications about economics and race); and to know the equal folly and blasphemy of interpreting all creation in terms of its usefulness to transient human needs." (78)
It is a dependence on a wholly other but loving God that therefore informs our creaturely solidarity with others leading us to love others instead of imposing our own will upon them.
So God with us seems to be the answer to how we are to live and resist evil. But the difference remains as to whether this God exist in process with us or is transcendent but in relationship with us. My struggle is between the assumptions that those stances imply about God.
So here are my questions that I would appreciate some perspective on –
- Why does Process Theology assume that a transcendent God must by nature will evil?
- And how is a preexisting chaos in process not itself just another term for God (leading back to the first question about a transcendent God)?
- And if the hope for our suffering is that God is with us, what difference does transcendence or solidarity truly make?