Parsing Process and Traditional Theodicies: A Hope for Synthesis and Collaboration
I’ve recently been reading this book, Primordial Truth and Postmodern Theology, where process theologian David Ray Griffin and scholar of religion/Perennialist Huston Smith go back and forth, hashing out the differences between their perspectives.
One of the points they dwell on most significantly, unsurprisingly, is questions of theodicy and as an extension ideas of Divine Power and the meaning of God’s omnipotence.
I find both Smith and Griffin’s approaches lacking to a certain degree. I have qualms with Griffin’s perspective because I’m decently attached to ideas of an Ultimate Reality/Godhead that is a single, cohesive absolute — the “Ground of Being” rather than a being among others — and his Whiteheadian approach takes two ultimates — creativity on the one hand and God on the other, each having an indispensable function and relationship with one another, but ultimately not fully integrated in a way that feels metaphysically satisfying to my mind.
Smith, on the other hand, instrumentalizes “genuine evil” (Griffin’s phrase) in a way that I find deeply troubling. His classic theodicy, following many great theologians in Abrahamic traditions, takes evil to be ultimately unreal, stemming from the mingling of non-being with being in the lower levels of the Neoplatonic emanationist hierarchy. So “evil” is a necessary consequence of finitude, yet finitude is metaphysically necessary to a grander Unity of God/The One, as it is a Unity which not merely pure undifferentiated singularity, but a Unity that even integrates multiplicity and singularity. Profound, and one may find much wisdom therein, but as Griffin remarks (paraphrasing, and adding my own twist), this account only goes so far as to explain the general existence of lack, finitude, and perishing in the cosmos — it does little to give account of how or why particular beings must suffer more than others.
Such a metaphysical scheme can explain the mere existence of disease, natural disasters, death, etc. yet it does not answer the actually relevant question of why this person got cancer and not that person, why this city was destroyed by a hurricane and not that city, etc. Granting God’s perfect Goodness and Power, why does the distribution of these evils seem so haphazard? Does God simply care less about the child suffering from Leukemia than the 92 year old statesman who committed numerous war crimes throughout his life and has been enjoying a peaceful retirement for many decades?
Smith’s approach here is to gesture towards some mysterious teleology of particular evils, that somehow such events plug into a Divine plan which is inaccessible to finite human intellect during our worldly lives, but which from an Ultimate perspective (which may be unveiled postmortem), these such events contribute intrinsically to the overall richness of the cosmos and Divine Life.
The process theologian, on the other hand, can present a more metaphysically limited God, whose power is merely persuasive rather than unilateral in relationship to actual created beings, so the comprehensibility of God’s goodness is ultimately unscathed by the distributions of evils in this world — in certain situations, working with the concrete facts of how things have developed, the Divine power can only do so much to rectify things, especially if the particular beings involved (from cancerous cells to wind currents to self-righteous tyrants) choose not to respond to the Divine call towards Goodness.
Smith’s theodicy easily decays into a notion of a God whose repertoire for creating a beautiful and good cosmos includes very strange ingredients such as kittens with horrendous terminal diseases. It is not merely that such things are mysterious to the human intellect, but there is simply no easy analogy for how such items are not only incidentally included in the best of all worlds, but in fact an integral component which contributes to this being the best of all possible worlds.
I’ve seen traditional theologians who’ve formulated this kind of theodicy in more sophisticated and qualified ways in order to avoid some of these more pernicious pitfalls, but my major takeaway from exploring the dialogue between these two theologians is that the traditional theodicy is an essentially esoteric doctrine. There are some people who are able to wrap their minds around the tensions and paradoxes of such a perspective and come out the other end all the more convinced in both the perfect Goodness and Power of God — wonderful. Yet I think this result requires such a degree of metaphysical intuition and perhaps even direct, mystical, spiritual experience that it is not a proper doctrine to take as the orthodox position on the topic, at least not if you wish to avoid the pitfalls of many laity coming to either see God as monstrous, lose faith, or develop a kind of moral nihilism, since all particular evils are ultimately contributing positively to the richness of God’s cosmos.
Smith will insist all of the above represent misunderstandings of the traditional dogma, and while I think he’s right, I also contend that the proper understanding here is really rather rare. The bar is set quite high.
Prominent contemporary Eastern Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart has very crudely dismissed process-relational theologies a number of times that I’ve seen, and this makes sense given some of his own metaphysical commitments. Yet I wonder if we might strike a more pluralistic and constructive relationship between this more recent theological tradition and the older forms of more Neoplatonically formulated theologies that Hart is closer to.
In these dialogues, Smith and Griffin repeatedly emphasize the extent of their profound agreement on a wide range of topics, and how this is much more significant than the few points on which they diverge from one another. On these points of disagreement, I think a synthetic perspective is more possible than some may initially think. As Smith writes, “It would not take much to convert Griffin’s two ultimates, metaphysical [creative experience] and axiological [God], into my ultimate (the Absolute) and its first expression (the Logos)” (Primordial Truth and Postmodern Theology, 82).
May it not be the case that a process theological perspective may be upāya even as it lacks the final unity and cohesiveness that traditional metaphysics would maintain is necessary for Ultimate Truth? Average believers seem eminently capable of grasping the basic contours of process-relational theology, where God, as a creative and proactive being stewarding creation forward to rich contrasts and ever greater individuality and beauty, is neither directly responsible for the various evils in the cosmos, nor indifferent to their existence. If this perspective on the Divine is comprehensible, inspiring, and therapeutic for many believers, is this not enough to accept that it may have a useful role to play in the diverse tapestry of theological perspectives in a given tradition? Or that at least traditional theologies should seek to adapt the best of what a process perspective is able to do, and work to integrate these ideas coherently into their existing doctrines? In an age colored by both religious and secular dysfunction, such pragmatic approaches to theology seem more needed than ever.
May we continue to benefit from the deep reflections of subtle and compassionate thinkers such as Smith and Griffin.