No ‘other’ God

 Beyond Eden [Amazon pic]

In this age of  post-modern-evolutionary-enlightenment and secularism where, for various ‘reasons’ there is an increasing skepticism regarding traditional views of God—both Classical and Biblical. This evolution of thought and theology regarding the existence of the God of Judeo/Christian thought has produced various ideas that have more of an affinity with Buddhistic notions of the ‘divine’.This chapter from my book, Beyond Eden: God, Evolution & The Problem of Eden’,is both an overview of these views—in particular that of Process theology; a theology of the ‘god’ of the impersonal and the unknowable—‘the ground of being’.  

 1.       What of GOD?

The God portrayed and ‘defended’ here is the God of the Judeo/Christian Scriptures. A God whose eternity, Peter Sanlon (2014) describes as a qualitatively different kind of existence to the one of his creatures (87). “Being outside of time does not mean that God cannot know what happens inside of time, nor that he cannot interact with a temporal order. Quite the opposite! It does, of course, shape the way he does these things.”(88) As Sanlon makes clear in the same passage:

It would perhaps be odd for him to create something he could not interact with. Similarly God created time. It is part of the created order. And though God is not himself temporal, he can interact with, and know all that occurs in, the times he has made. Indeed, precisely because God is not temporal he has perfect knowledge of all events in time.(88)

This God is not to be confused with any other ideas/notions/theologies or philosophies of God—either pre-modern, modern or post-modern—as shall be made clear throughout the development of this argument.

In this section I shall, briefly, address, what may be considered the ‘straw men’ (demeaning caricatures) of modern and post-modern attempts at lessening the culpability of the classical ‘image’ of God in the light of evolutionary theory—and also in the light of contemporary religious and philosophical notions of the reality of God. The views offered here are considered incontrovertibly necessary to the defence of the God of the Bible against other notions and ideas that may be seen to better fit the evolutionary paradigm but that only serve to remove the problem by the substitution of the God of Scripture with a lesser ‘deity’.

2 .      Constraints on God

Should God be limited in his ability to produce or concoct the best possible plans for fulfilling his creative objectives, God would not be omnipotent. Christopher Southgate (2008,29)  argues that the sort of universe we have, in which complexity emerges in a process governed by thermodynamic necessity and Darwinian natural selection, is the only sort of universe that could give rise to all that the earth has produced. To affirm evolutionary process as being ‘the only way’ through which God could achieve his objectives one has to assume that God was unable (lacked the ability) to bring about his creative objectives without this astronomical/ biological framework or that God’s use of such a process was the best possible means through which God could bring about the best of possible outcomes. This is, a similar point to the one noted in Alexander, that sees biology as a ‘package deal’ (279). If biology should be a ‘stand-alone-package-deal’ that has no significance other than it being the product of creative genius, it is reasonable to suppose that the creator’s benevolent characteristics be called into question—unless there is more to the story other than God’s desire to create.  This is, of course, assuming that there has been an intentional pathway within the evolutionary process—otherwise there would be no reason to suppose that any such future outcomes could be considered anything other than random outcomes within the naturally selective process of evolution.

Jeff Astley (2009) asks whether or not God could have ordered nature differently and then answers his own question by saying, ‘perhaps not’. Astley goes on to say however that materiality inevitably involves imperfection—a tendency to disorder, decay, fragility, and mortality (167). Astley’s point is significant as it is the case that the accusation against the ‘designer God’ is often that of incompetence—the design is simply under par or faulty. Ergo, God is either impotent or fails to meet the necessary criteria or the presuppositions of the complainant. This assertion is false as I shall argue in part two of this thesis. Keith Ward’s (1990) comments are insightfully apposite when he refers to ‘natural’ evil as ‘an inevitable consequence of this kind of world’.  I hasten to add here though—that it is not that this world is governed solely by ‘natural forces’ but that this world is the only possible world in which carbon-based-life could obtain and the telos of the Triune God be established. Moreover, there are other [unseen] forces that bring about deleterious effects on the biosphere—through means that are, presently, beyond the comprehension of any material analysis—even Angels.

 3 .      ‘A Question of Ontological Veracity’

In this section I shall briefly, though importantly, address the notion of ‘God’ as the ground of being rather than as a determinate entity; in other words that the creation, though not purely the product of chance and necessity, was not the ‘design product’ of personality/personal ingenuity.

Should the term ‘God’ refer only to a ‘ground of being’ first cause—a first cause that defies description or a ‘first cause’ that may be loosely described as ‘nature’—then there would be no case to answer as there would be no personal creative-agent against whom a charge may be brought. For should the term ‘God’ refer only to a ‘ground of being’ first cause—a first cause that defies description or that may be loosely described as ‘nature’—then there is no case to answer—for there is, indeed, no personal agent that may be found guilty of failure of any sort. The notion of a ‘Ground of Being’, presumably, thought by its advocates, to deal with the problem of natural evil,  does nothing of the sort apart from demeaning the God of the Bible. However, it is such a view that is commonly espoused by philosophical theologians such as Wesley Wildman. Wildman says (2007,167) that any notion of ‘ultimate reality’ is bizarre but adds that ‘most theologians and a few philosophers are captivated by such (ultimate reality) speech’ and that they even choose it while understanding its ‘final futility’. In his section on ‘Determinate-Entity Theism’ Wildman, regarding this alleged futility, asks (170) what kind of entity the divine reality really is? His conclusion is that the God of the Bible seems to be made in the image of its authors. In short, God’s determinate nature is known in our longings. Everything else we say theologically must serve this overridingly important version of ultimate reality, and this becomes the crucial criterion of determinate-entity theism. Wildman’s views seem to have little to do with any perceived notion of the goodness of the Triune God of Scripture, as Wildman’s picture of God bears no resemblance whatsoever to this God. He writes:

Speaking of God as the ground of being removes   the possibility of proposing a divine character     that is profoundly different from the character of    the world. This is its chief theological difference      from its competitors. Determinate-entity theism requires a divine goodness that our best scientific         vision of the cosmos does not easily support and so positively requires some ontological distance between God and the world and a layer of theological explanation for why the world is the way it appears to be despite the purported impeccability of God’s moral character (my italics) …Ground-of-being theism needs neither to explain a discrepancy nor to distinguish among events to articulate the divine nature. (Wildman 2007,281)

Wildman’s views are clearly expressed. Indeed, it would seem that the notion of God as a ‘determinate entity’ creates enormous philosophical questions—especially with regard to the problem of [natural] evil. It is, of course, possible that the God revealed in the Bible is a figment of the imaginative wishful thinking of latter day ‘hominids’—particularly the authors of the Old Testament. Wildman states (282) that the ‘divine goodness’ described in the Scriptures is a difficult fit with the apparent evidence. However, it is striking that many distinguished theologians and philosophers are content to hold to a more classical approach. Keith Ward (2008) comments that to call God good is to say that God actualizes within himself the best of all possible perfections—moreover, Ward suggests that, “If such a God produces a universe like this, then God remains good, whatever the universe is like. A supremely good God might, then, necessarily create this universe, or some universe with similar characteristics.” (Ward, 92)  By ‘necessarily’ I take it (though Ward doesn’t state this) that the sovereign God chose to create this universe in order to bring about the best of possible circumstances, i.e., the ‘best possible world’. This does not imply lesser capabilities on God’s part but rather that this world is, de facto, the best possible world—the world in which God’s ultimate ‘Good’ purposes can be achieved.

As far as Biblical Theism is concerned, there should be no willingness to dilute God’s attributes; however should there be any attempts at ‘dilution’ the most likely candidates would be those of omnipotence or benevolence. Should God be declared ‘less than powerful’ or ‘not quite as powerful’ as previously thought, the question of God’s benevolence becomes less crucial. Omnipotence, however, remains crucial to any evolutionary theodicy that takes seriously the legitimacy of the biblical narratives. The ‘God is not benevolent’ view seeks to remove the notion of both evil and benevolence from the ‘stage’ but, nevertheless offers a reason for the existence of ‘harms’. For proponents of this position, the argument is likely to be that God does not have the necessary characteristics that enable him to behave with consistent benevolence.

Wildman gives an outline of the possibilities: Firstly, he makes clear his view that, (a) a personal, benevolent, attentive, and active deity cannot create through evolution and (b) that therefore God the creator is not a personal, benevolent, attentive, and active deity. He states that we can preserve those affirmations symbolically (for whatever reason), but goes on to say that:

…they no longer refer to a divine being with intentions and awareness, with feelings and intelligence, with plans and powers to act. Rather, they refer to the ground of being itself, to the creative and fecund power source in the depths of nature, to the value structures and potentialities that the world manifests. They refer to the God beyond God, which is to say the truly ultimate reality that hovers behind and beneath and beyond the symbolic gods we create and deploy to satisfy our personal needs, to make sense of our world, and to legitimate the exercise of social control. (W. Wildman 2011)

There is neither time or space to discuss Wildman’s assertion that the God of the Bible could not have created through an evolutionary process, though I disagree entirely with Wildman’s conclusions. However, I accept that this does offer, to some extent, a challenge regarding providence within the evolutionary process.Wildman’s ‘god’ though lacks ‘substance’ lacks any notion of benevolence—indeed lacks anything in real terms. Naturally, this ‘god’ cannot manifest personal concern for the products of any likely creative processes because this ‘ground of being factory’ has no ‘mind’ and no personality from which to proceed. Nevertheless, Wildman’s alternative is somehow able to ‘allow for’ the transformation of the material in the cosmos that allowed for the evolution of the biosphere etc. Wildman’s apparent disillusionment with the classical notion of God has provoked him to strong language. Clayton and Knapp (2007) make the following reference to Wildman’s disdain, quoting him thus: “Frankly, and I say this with the utmost reverence, the personal God does not pass the test of parental moral responsibility. If God really is personal in this way, then we must conclude that God has a morally abysmal record of inaction or action.”[1] (179-180)

Wildman’s view, as pictured here, offers a not dissimilar view to Sigmund Freud. Freud’s view offered by Nicholi (2002)—that the very idea of ‘an idealized Superman’ in the sky—is so patently infantile and so foreign to reality seems, most likely, to stem from a total miscomprehension—even caricature of the God of the Bible. It is no doubt the case that some may naively interpret the biblical notion of God in the way Freud expresses, but some (an increasing number even) may, due to this kind of reasoning or lack of a plausible notion of the God of the Bible, wish to find an alternative ‘god’; this, I suggest, is totally the wrong direction to take as it leads to another path—a path void of any notion of ‘God’ whatsoever—to anything other than an unworthy caricature of the God that Scripture reveals. Wildman is of the opinion that ground-of-being theologies are important because of their denial that ultimate reality can ‘possibly’ be a determinate entity at all—and that this establishes a valuable theological contrast with determinate entity theisms. The ‘ground-of-being’ view of the ‘personhood’ of God as well as God’s possible interaction with the world may, as Wildman suggests, produce a hopeful intellectual response to these pervasive evils. But, at the same time, this view favors philosophical logic over and above the revelation of Scripture.  Wildman is mistaken in his deliberations—his alternative ‘deity’ being unacceptable. It is unacceptable for two reasons. Firstly, as a result of his dissatisfaction/ disappointment with the ‘performance’ of the God of the Bible Wildman offers an extra-biblical, pantheistic alternative. Secondly, the substituted, ‘ground of being’, alternative, apart from being unbiblical, fails to convince me that ‘it’ has any substance whatsoever. Regarding, the ‘narrative to Scripture’, Peter Sanlon, rightfully says that:

[F]or the drama to be of any significance whatsoever there must be real actors in the play. If the metaphor of a drama has to be developed further, then it must be insisted that the scriptwriter is also real. The God who creates, speaks, directs, interacts and participates must be a real person before he can do any of these          things. In the technical terminology, ontology is       prior to revelation and salvation. Systematic theology recognizes this, and asks the entirely appropriate questions ‘What kind of being is he?’ And: What may we know of him from his words          and actions? (Sanlon 2014, 72)

God is the Triune ‘determinate entity’ who has created all things and who sustains all things for His ‘good’ purposes. Ergo, the God of Scripture is the ultimate ontological reality.

4.       Process Thought & Omnipotence

In this section we take a cursory glance at process theology as it applies to ‘omnipotence’.

Cobb & Griffin (1976,69) state the dominant position of process theologians clearly enough when they pose the question of why evil exists when there is in existence, according to classical and biblical theology, a God with ‘controlling power’—suggesting that,

… a major reason that Christian theism has clung on so long to the notions of God as a Controlling Power is that thereby it can assure believers that God’s will, despite appearances, is victorious—for the sake of this assurance it has risked seeing God as the author of needless suffering and even moral evil. It has risked the implicit denial of human freedom and the rebellion of humanistic atheism.” (Process Theology,118)

There is a something to be said for this critique. However, the above depiction is an extreme caricature and it is not the picture of sovereignty that is anywhere near to that adhered to by the author of this thesis—or to that even of Open Theism which offers freedom without, mostly, denying the overall sovereignty of God (Pinnock 2000)[2].Indeed, the Process interpretation of God offers a rather simplistic view of sovereign reality as it does not allow any means with which to comprehend any notion of ontological veracity for this alleged ‘ground of being’ other than as some kind of nebulous force akin to that of pantheism. Indeed, it does not offer anywhere near sufficient reason to replace the God of Scripture with any ‘straw man’ scenario in the form of dialectical hypothesis. Wildman (2006,274) acknowledges the difficulty in that whatever God is, on the process account, it is exceedingly resistant to anthropomorphic modelling, “and certainly nothing like the personal God of so many sacred texts and religious pieties”. Wildman‘s summary accurately describes the problem from both perspectives.The God of process theology is considered to be a God that does not abuse, or ‘coerce’ but persuades—throughout nature and in living beings. The God of process theology cannot override free will; it is not that he will not but rather that he cannot (cannot as in does not have the potency to so do).

According to Griffin (Lubarsky & Griffin 1996), the redefining of the omnipotence of God may be the solution that dissolves the problem of evil as there is no likelihood of culpability on the part of this particular notion of God. Any possibility of continued adherence to the biblical view of omnipotence is ruled out as is made clear from the following, rather long but apposite, quotation from Griffin:

Because our universe was created out of chaos         rather than out of absolute nothingness, so that creative power is inherent in the world (as well as in God), the creatures’ twofold creative power of self-determination and efficient causation cannot be cancelled, overridden, or completely controlled by God. On this basis process philosophy denies the second premise in the argument…saying instead that although God is all-powerful—not      only in the sense of being the supreme power of the universe but also in the sense of being perfect in power, having all the power one being could possibly have—God cannot unilaterally prevent all evil. If being ‘all-powerful’ is taken to mean being omnipotent in the sense of essentially having all the power, however, then process philosophy simply denies the first premise’s assertion that a being worthy of the name God is all-powerful by definition.

(Griffin   2001, 223-224)

Both the logic and implications of this kind of thinking are clear. There is, according to this view, in the world of matter—matter that pre-existed the emergence of God, an inherent creative capability out of which appears the process of evolution—a process that ‘God’ could not interfere with but only persuade. So it is from within the alleged ‘inherent creative capability’ of matter itself that the force of evolution manifests itself (ex nihilo, nihil fit)—and not out of the MIND of the God of Scripture—ex nihilo. Griffin states that God, though having all the power possible, does not possess ‘ALL POWER’ and therefore is not capable of preventing evil or of much else regarding the biological evolutionary process.[3] [4]The idea that any such imagined requiredness could exist as a de facto state of affairs—‘conjured up’ as a more convenient replacement for the God of Biblical Theology—is hardly convincing. Moreover, the notion that ethical principles (or any other come to that) are likely to emanate from anything other than the actual character [Mind] of The God, who is by His very nature ‘the ultimate good’ is equally unconvincing. Here, I am in agreement with Gregory Boyd (2001) who opines that, “…unless God’s essential nature is necessary and actual—apart from his interaction with the world, neither the enduring nature of God nor the contingent nature of the world can be rendered intelligible. God must be self-sufficient within himself, creating and relating to the world out of love instead of metaphysical necessity.” (276)

In the light of the problem of creaturely suffering the process ‘alternative’ may seem an attractive proposition—one that may fit in with some current understandings of reality, but it cannot be taken as the final word regarding the God of the Bible as it fails miserably to do justice to the character of that God. This view of God, helpfully, dissolves the problem of evil. A God with restricted or limited ability can hardly be held responsible for failing to address the problem of suffering in any significant way. Indeed, this ‘god’, it could be said, cannot entertain any kind of ‘planned intention’—vis a vis the creation of anything much—most certainly not creation ex nihilo. This God though could not be mistaken for the God of the Judeo/Christian Scriptures  as this view of God is a step into the unknown and ‘unknowable’, and is not a God we could visualize and, most certainly is nothing like the Triune God of the Bible.

Paul Copan and William Lane Craig offer a helpful summary regarding the difference between ‘abstract’ and ‘concrete’ objects:

We have seen that God, though immaterial and  spatio-temporal, would be classed by everyone as a concrete object in view of his being a        personal causal agent. Perhaps that provides a clue to the distinction between concrete and abstract entities. It is virtually universally agreed  that abstract objects, if they exist, are causally impotent; they do not stand in causal relations. Numbers, for example, do not effect anything.          (Copan 168)

[1] Wildman says, regarding the use of the word ‘evil’, that ‘suffering is a more useful category than evil because suffering is more neutrally descriptive and does not prejudge the moral character of…[?] regarding  natural disasters, predation and the like’. Here, Wildman may well be correct.

[2] According to Clark Pinnock, “God as the creator of the world  (italics mine) can make the kind of world he likes—in this case a world with free creatures in it…God exercises power in ways appropriate to the creation project…He gives creatures the room decides things and binds himself to the promises he makes. Thus God exercises sovereignty by sharing power not by dominion…God uses omnipotence to ‘free’ and not enslave…It takes omnipotence to create and manage freedom…” (Pinnock 2000, 93,94,95)

[3] Madden & Hare (1987) conclude that the process God is, “…unable to move toward an aesthetic end and without an enormous cost in pain (his own and others); he is apparently so weak that he cannot guarantee his own welfare. If he is that weak, obviously he is not able as a theistic God should be, to ensure the ultimate triumph of an end of his choice.”(29)

[4] In contra distinction to the views espoused by Griffin, Wildman et el, John Leslie (1989) suggests that, “Neoplatonism is [today] often expressed in such a formulae as that God is not a being but the Power of Being. On my interpretation, what dark sayings say that God is the world’s ethical requiredness or, equivalently, that God is the creatively effective ethical need that there should exist a (good) world.” (167)


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