Natural Evil – July 2003

Question: If moral evil is accounted for as the result of the actions of free agents, how does process theology account for the origin of natural evils — natural disasters, disease, and the like? If God is a persuader and not a governor, is s/he persuading, and not governing, the material cosmos? How can we conceive of God persuading a nonsentient agent? If the material cosmos is simply functioning according to “laws,” i.e. is a machine, how do we account for the fact that this machine seems now to be malfunctioning (it seems it must be if it was created by a loving God?

Publication Month: July 2003

Dr. Cobb’s Response

As in so many respects, process thought turns questions of this sort upside down. Generally people have focused on sin as a characteristic of human beings as the explanation of evil in the human world and then asked how to explain natural evil. The classical answer was that this, too, is the consequence of human sin, but for us that answer is absurd in the context of a world that existed for billions of years before human beings came along. Even if we restrict the problem of evil to sentient beings, we must recognize that for hundreds of millions of years creatures have suffered at each other’s hands and as a result of natural disasters that have nothing to do with human beings. It is better to develop an understanding of God and the world that fits with what we know of this long evolutionary process than to start with one that fits only the human situation.

One way of relating God and the world is what we call deism. In this view God brought the world into being and established the laws by which it would operate and then left it to itself. If we think this way, we will wonder whether the laws God established are the best possible. They allow for so much suffering. One wonders also why the initial creative act did not produce a world that included more advanced beings. The initiation of our world through the Big Bang and billions of years of development seems odd.

What makes it odd, of course, is the presupposition that God is all powerful, so that God could have created in a quite different way. All that we really know is that the world came into being through this very lengthy process in a generally law-abiding way. For many people there is no reason to bring God into the picture at all. An omnipotent God fits with this picture very poorly.

What roles might God be seen as playing here? It is possible to think that God caused the Big Bang. Just how to think of that depends on how we think of the Big Bang, and on this there is no consensus. My preference is to think of an infinite “empty” space in Whitehead’s sense, that is, a space filled with tiny bursts of energy but lacking in any enduring objects such as what we now call “particles.” The beginning of our universe is the coming into being of such particles, and for reasons that are beyond my scientific understanding, this caused a great explosion. Without this, nothing of significant value would ever have emerged. We may see a role for God in this coming to be of a new order of reality.

There is a second role that can be attributed to God. Scientists marvel at the physical constants that govern the process once it is initiated. It seems that if any one of several of them had been different, life could never have come into being. In other words, they seem to be geared to the production of higher values. Since the constants are presupposed by all events and cannot be seen as resulting from them, it is easy to seek a cause beyond the flux of events. Such a cause may well be thought of as God.

From this point on, many think of the further development of reality as the mechanical working out of the impulses generated in the initial explosion following the constants primordially established. In that case there is no further role for God. Some think that this mechanistic explanation ceases to work with the emergence of human freedom. At that point one can again relate God to the world as calling for the right use of freedom.

Following Whitehead, process thinkers reject this picture. We think that the individual entities that made up the world even before the Big Bang and still populate empty space are not wholly determined in a mechanistic way. They are acts, growing out of the past but not wholly determined by that past. They, too, are subject to God’s persuasion although the element of persuade-ability may be vanishingly small. We suspect that God had been luring the occasions in empty space to constitute particles long before this actually happened. We think this persuasive process has continued from that time to this, bringing more complex creatures into being. These more complex beings are more subject to God’s persuasive activity, although, like the simpler ones, what they become moment by moment is chiefly determined by their situation.

Does this run contrary to evidence. We do not think so. The constants make possible the evolution of more complex, living beings. But whether these come into being, and if so, what form they take does not seem to be preestablished. Chance and purpose have a role to play. There is a place to see God at work in the course of events.

Is the claim that God is at work compatible with the natural evils that abound in the process of cosmic expansion? I think so. God’s persuasive work with individual entities has no effect on the movements of the stars. It has negligible effect on the falling of a stone. It is trivial with most electronic occasions. To effect the breakthroughs that are so important in cosmic history, it took a lot of luring! Even with living things, God’s persuasion does not work to limit their mutual destructiveness. If a lion is chasing a gazelle, I assume that God is encouraging the gazelle to escape and the lion to capture and kill it. Predation is part of that process that brings into being more complex creatures capable of greater enjoyment.

It is my belief that God has a great deal to do with evolutionary process in that apart from the aim of living beings “to live, to live well, and to live better” this process would not have occurred. I believe, following Whitehead, that God lures the creatures in this direction. But as more complex creatures with richer experience emerge, there is not only more enjoyment, there is also more suffering. This is imposed by the creatures on one another and also results from external causes. To reduce suffering would be, also, to reduce value. God’s aim seems to be the increase of value even at great cost in suffering.

This did not change abruptly with the evolutionary emergence of our human ancestors. They related to one another and to other creatures much as other animals did. I believe that they suffered more and had greater enjoyment that any other species. They also developed far more complex ways of relating and thinking about their relations. This opened the door to a much larger role for God in their lives. For the first time creatures could envision and evaluate the suffering they caused. God could lure them away from some of the activities that caused unnecessary suffering. God could lure them toward ways of relating to each other, and even, eventually, to strangers, that brought comfort and joy. But they could also resist this calling.

In this picture one can see that although human sin is an important reason for evil at the human level, it is certainly not the only reason. The reasons for mutual destructiveness among other animals do not cease to operate among humans. In Whitehead’s language, “life is robbery.” No creatures can continue to live without destroying others. Cooperation is extremely important even to survival, but competition is also inescapable. The evil that occurs among all living creatures continues with human beings and is exacerbated by their superior powers and emerging self-consciousness.

There are other contributors to evil that are distinctively human. The love that is of such value in human relations is also the cause of bonding against others. The greater the devotion to the group, the fiercer the opposition to the enemy. War is a human invention made possible by the human capacity for self-sacrifice. Its consequences are horrendous.

This evil is intensified by distinctively human belief systems. When we cherish one such system, we are likely to view those who reject that system as evil and worthy of punishment. Our cherishing of our own systems can be a source of great good as well as great evil. Such cherishing is not sin in the usual sense.

There are also psychological complexities that cause great suffering. We can develop self-images that cause us to suffer ourselves and sometimes to lash out at others in totally inappropriate ways. These psychological dynamics are not what we usually call sin. Our need for approval by others can similarly cause us to do terrible things to one another as can our acceptance of authority. Our need for acceptance and propensity to follow authority have many positive functions in our lives, and we do not usually call them sinful.

My point in all this is that although at the human level there are willful acts of disobedience to what we believe is right, these are not the main source of human evil. The increase of evil at the human level in comparison with other creatures is partly a matter of our heightened capacity for suffering and partly our increased capacity — and disposition — to inflict it. We believe that God lures us away from unnecessary violence toward one another, and that as we grow more sensitive to that lure, we will contribute more to one another’s happiness and less to one another’s suffering. But there is no way that complex creatures such as ourselves could come into being and exist without an increase of suffering in the world.

Critics of process theology assert that “our” God is too weak to be worthy of devotion. We certainly agree that God does not achieve divine purposes by forcing the world to conform. God’s power is not of that sort. God always works with the world as it is, calling it to realize emerging possibilities. When the entities making up the world had minuscule capacity to respond, it took a very long time, by human time scales, to effect the needed changes. As God’s work brought forth creatures with greater capacity to respond, change occurred more rapidly. With human beings, whole new ranges of possibility came into being. The God who brought order out of chaos, life out of the inanimate, consciousness out of the unconscious, and love out of a world that knew no such relationship is not, in my view weak. This God calls me moment by moment to enjoyment, to truth, and to love. The call is also the empowerment to respond. That is a power far greater than the power to push me around and force me to conform. It is also the power that was revealed in Jesus.