Friday, February 20, 2015

Process Theodicy - Creation out of Chaos and the Problem of Evil (David Ray Griffin): Part 1


This is a review of David Griffin's process theodicy essay from Encountering Evil: Live Options in Theodicy (Westminster John Knox Press; Rev Ed edition, 2001). Aside from his contribution to theology (notably in the Process school of thought), David Griffin is also known for his work on conspiracy theories surrounding the attacks on the World Trade Centre (11th September 2001).


"In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth." (Genesis 1:1)

The traditional (and some might say preferred) reading and translation of this biblical text, has been to regard this as speaking of creation out-of-nothing (ex nihilo). God creates the heavens and the earth literally from nothing. God speaks, and things begin to exist. When we take into account the traditional belief that God is omnipotent (all-powerful), this seems to be a reasonable assumption. However, David Griffin draws attention to the fact that an alternative reading and translation of this passage is also available (and as far as he is concerned, one that is preferred by Hebrew scholars):

"When God began to create the heavens and the earth, the earth was without form and void." (Genesis 1:1)

Now the issue of biblical translation may be a strange one to begin a discussion about process theodicy with, but for Griffin it is vital. This is because how we understand the creation account in Genesis 1 raises an important issue: Did God have full control over the way the world was created? In other words, did God create the heavens and the earth literally out of nothing, or out of some pre-existing matter (in this sense bringing order from chaos).

For instance, in Plato's Timaeus we read how the Demiurge worked with materials which were not totally compliant to its will, and as such it ended up creating the best possible world from what was available to it. So rather like a potter, the Demiurge worked to create something that was only as good as the resources it had, which meant the world created was a victory of 'persuasion' (what could only be), rather than necessity (what should actually be).

Plato's creation account therefore introduces the idea that pre-existing matter places limits on what could be done with it. This is because the world was not created ex nihilo (out of nothing). So in terms of the biblical account, if God creates the world ex-nihilo then God is ultimately responsible for the world created, but if the world created came from pre-existing matter then God is in some way limited, and only able to create a best possible world.

Re-understanding the traditional view of creation and God

So the generally accepted view of the biblical account of creation, is that God is all-powerful (omnipotent) and created the world ex-nihilo. However Griffin advocates a re-reading of the biblical accounts here because creation ex-nihilo raises so many problems when trying to construct a credible theodicy. One such problem is this: If God was free to create any world God chose, why did God create one where evil and suffering is present, or one which had the opportunity for evil to occur in it?

Griffin’s theodicy then starts by rejecting the popular (and traditional) belief that God is omnipotent and created the heavens and the earth 'ex nihilo'. Instead he sees God struggling to bring order out of pre-existing matter. He does this for several reasons. Firstly the traditional position suggests the presence of evil in the world contributes to a higher good. If God has created a world in which evil exists then this suggests it has a purpose. This also means God allows evil events to occur so that this greater good may result. But if bad things are occurring for a greater good, then what we think is evil is only apparently evil, rather than being actually evil. Griffin rejects this because he thinks a theodicy should first and foremost deal with the problem of a real evil; that which does not contribute to any 'greater good' on the part of humanity, or God.

Griffin also rejects any notion of God's self-limitation. Omnipotence suggests God can literally do anything, and as we have seen this raises questions about why this world was created rather than any other. So Griffin introduces the idea that evil exists because God's power is fundamentally limited in a real sense. For example, if God created the world out of pre-existing matter then God is logically limited in what could have been done with such matter. Like a potter working with a lump of clay, there are only going to be a certain number things which can be made from it. One cannot build a working iPad out of a block of clay for example, but one could build any number of pots or vases.

Why is God’s power limited? This could be due to any number of things, such as the presence of other realities (i.e. things which have their own power-base), limitations in God's own nature, (i.e. maybe God has a 'dark side'), or maybe in a range of 'possible worlds' God cannot bring into existence a world without evil in it. Whatever, Griffin rejects the traditional belief in God's omnipotence and divine self-limitation, in favour of one where God is limited in God's essential being (or nature). As such God cannot be held accountable for the creation of a world where real evil exists.

Limiting what God could do and why

So the rejection of creation ex nihilo is fundamental to Griffin's theodicy. Instead of a God who can do anything, we now have a God who worked with pre-existent 'materials' to create the world and the universe we inhabit. In doing so we introduce the possibility that these 'materials' might have had some innate power of their own, even potentially thwarting God's will (a point made earlier in connection with Plato's Timaeus). There might also be eternal principles which determine the manner in which these materials' can be ordered (or arranged) and what could be done with them, thus imposing further limits on what God could have done. If this were not the case, and if God were truly omnipotent, then everything is dependent on God and any power or latent potential pre-existent materials might have had could have been over-ridden (or withdrawn) by God at any time. So by rejecting the traditional notion of divine omnipotence, Griffin allows for the possibility that these pre-existent 'materials' are capable of self-determination (partially), and have the ability to influence other things around them.

"God cannot control but can only persuade." (David Griffin)

Another key tenet in Griffin's theodicy is the belief that the world and everything in it has come about due to evolutionary processes. Griffin takes the evolutionary position as his starting point because he believes the notion that God created the world ex nihilo is unscientific. Also, within an evolutionary context Griffin is able to make more sense of the notion of God's omnipotence, showing 'why a God whose power is essentially unlimited would use such a long, and pain-filled method' of creating the world, and everything in it’. Of course, this too is not without its problems. For one, if evolution is a true account of how everything got here, and God is its author, why did God choose to allow things to evolve through a long drawn-out process based on the death and destruction of millions of species? As Griffin states: ‘Why did God take so long to get to the main act?’

The answer to this lies in understanding how an evolutionary worldview provides the basis for Griffin's four notions of power and value. These are structured (by him) in such a way that a rise or fall in any one of them, causes a corresponding rise or fall in the others.

These four notions are:

  • The capacity to enjoy intrinsic goodness (or value).
  • The capacity to suffer intrinsic evil (or dis-value).
  • The power of self-determination.
  • The power to influence others (for good or for evil).

Griffin believes there is a hierarchy in the capacity for everything in the world and the universe to experience enjoyment and suffering. Whether something is more or less complex does not matter, for all things have the potential to experience 'pleasure' or 'pain' (for example). Less complex things (E.g. electrons, atoms, cells) find their power/value correlation compounded into more complex ones (E.g. animals and humans). This means that the more complex something is, the more richer its experiences will be. It also means that the more complex something is, the more it has the potential to do greater good or evil in the world. 

"Increased complexity [in an] organism seems to be the condition for increased richness of experience, hence of increased intrinsic goodness... However, every increase in this hierarchy is Janus-faced: each increase in the capacity to enjoy intrinsic goodness is likewise an increase in the capacity to suffer." (David Griffin)
So the answer to why there is evil and suffering in the world is simply to do with the way things are: the presence of evil and suffering being a residue of the potential for all beings to realise degrees of goodness in the world:
"To have the good is necessarily to risk the bad." (David Griffin)
Ultimately evil and suffering is not present in the world as a result of any 'Fall' from an original state of perfection, or because humans directly disobeyed God. Nor does its presence in the world challenge God's essential goodness. Evil and suffering exists in the world simply because that is that the way things are. If we want to have good things, we must allow for the possibility that sometimes bad things happen too: The greater an individual's power of self-determination (freedom), the greater their potential for experiencing goodness (value). The greater their potential for experiencing goodness, the greater their potential for experiencing evil and doing other than the will of God. This is the way power/value correlate.

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