I appreciated many things about the most recent TNT episode in which Tripp and Bo dealt with some of the questions and common misconceptions of process theology and its differences from other theologies like Arminianism and open theism. I also enjoyed the exchange between Tripp and Brandon in the comment section. This podcast and blog is one of the best places out there for constructive theological conversation. I have read Whitehead and studied process theology in some depth now, and I’m very impressed and challenged by much of it. Getting to hear from John Cobb in person on a number of occasions was a highlight during my time at CGU.
I am not very interested in making statements about what counts as orthodoxy and what doesn’t, but I am concerned about giving past theological ideas a fair reading. When treating central doctrines of the faith with scrutiny, therefore, I feel that the burden of proof should be on the innovator more so than on the tradition. Of course, this does not mean that we cannot innovate. On the contrary, innovation is essential, but problems occur when we do this without charitable consideration of those who have come before us — as Tripp and Bo know (that’s why they let people like me express somewhat divergent opinions on their blog!).
For guys who are as theologically astute as Tripp and Bo, however, I was a little surprised to hear what I consider to be a rather trite dismissal and caricature of the classical tradition’s way of talking about God’s power. Specifically, I want to take issue with the claim made by process theology that “Constantinian” Christianity gave bad compliments to God that were better reserved for Caesar – omnipotence in particular. The trouble is that oppressed Christians with minority and marginalized status under the rule of the Roman Empire gave “Caesar” attributes to God to distinguish themselves from Greek polytheism long before the church’s integrity was compromised by imperial power. And they weren’t voluntarists (i.e., those who believe that God can do whatever God wants). Now, this by itself does not mean that the early Christians were right to talk about God in the way they did, but I’m simply making the point that such supposedly misleading “compliments” predated the creeds and the councils, and were not made for the reasons that Tripp and Bo’s comments implied. Yet the question still remains as to whether the early church was justified in how they conceived of God, and that’s what I want to consider first.
In the podcast, Tripp used the example of parenting to illustrate the problem of evil with respect to God’s power and God’s character. The scenario was described in which a parent standing idly by watches while his or her child runs into the street, fully aware that a car is coming down the road and not intervening to save the child. Clearly, by the standards of our finite, human and historical existence, this kind of parenting is unimaginable. The conclusion is drawn then that if God fails to intervene in the world when God’s children are in imminent danger, God is a bad parent. Therefore, if God is to remain good, it must be the case that God cannot “intervene.”
In order to arrive at this position, a comparison is made univocally to God’s relationship with human beings in history and space-time in general. That is, it is assumed that human relationships between parents and their children are similar enough to the relationship between God and human beings for this exact parenting comparison to be used when talking about God. According to the classical Christian way of talking about God though, and as Brandon Morgan points out, this direct comparison is a mistake.
As finite beings, all of our language is only fit to describe finite reality. This leads some to conclude that all attempts to say anything positive about God are in vain. But those like Thomas Aquinas for example, and Pseudo-Dionysius, insisted instead that one could indeed ascribe certain attributes to God by following a process of affirmation, negation, and remotion when talking about God (e.g., “God is like a parent in some respects, but only in limited correlation or proportionality, not directly”). This method of theology became known as the via analogia, or the “analogical predication of divine names.” Thomas also has an account of God’s agency in the world in terms of secondary causality, which is a non-zero sum way of granting freedom to creation and human agents for participation in the purposes of God without infringing upon natural ends.
In other words, while it is fitting to say that God loves us like parents love their children, this love, and this parenthood, are not im-mediately comparable to our finite and human experience of love and parenting. All the more so when we get into specific human experiences like kids playing in traffic. The idea that God could intervene to stop traffic is not the same kind of intervention that Christians hope for in the resurrection or in the eschaton. The same goes for talking about God as a “ruler,” or as anything else. Thus, when assessing and the nature of God’s character with respect to God’s power, we cannot rely too heavily on any one human analogy. Only in the resounding overflow or of a plurality of names does the nature of God become even partially revealed. Thus, whatever one makes of traditional accounts of God’s omnipotence, it does not equal “arbitrariness” or Caesar-style trumping power.
Secondly, The problem of evil has troubled me deeply, and still does. I do not feel resolved about it at all. My dissertation is largely about this very subject. But I think our refusal to tolerate a fair amount of mystery and childlike faith when it comes to explaining suffering has as much to do with our anthropocentric view of reality as it does with any possible deficiency in God’s character or power. Much as I want it to, God’s goodness does not necessarily depend on what is good for humans and from our point of view right now. I say this as someone who is as existentially disturbed by meaningless horrors in history as the next person.
Process folks like to recite the Philippians 2 hymn, but only the first half of it. Yes, God’s power is most demonstrated in the self-emptying love of Christ on the cross. In this sense, God can rightly be called a fellow-suffer who understands. And on this same cross, the power of Caesar is judged, criticized, and exposed as fraudulent. But only in the resurrection is the power of Caesar truly undermined, which Paul attests in “part two” of the Philippians hymn. And according to Paul, the power of God is disclosed not as weakness, but in weakness – in becoming weakness, namely. For without decent, there could be no ascent (metaphorically).
Similarly, the reign of God is known not so much by non-coercive power, but by power from below – power from the fringe. There is a difference here. I am weary of any dualism between nature and super-nature as well, but if the resurrection isn’t meant to be a coercive rupture of the “as is” structure of reality, I don’t know what is. I suggest, therefore, that Christians are better off not by taking issue with the idea of God having coercive power as such, but with God having top-down power. It’s a false binary if we’re forced to choose between a Caesar-God and a persuasive God. God’s top-down action is weak, but bottom-up, it’s strong, transformative and quite forceful. This doesn’t need to mean it isn’t loving. Somewhere herein lies an all-important distinction that might just make a way for a real eschatology without giving up the integrity of the physical universe.