Process Theodicy: A Discussion
Barry L. Whitney
There are few theological issues as
significant and few as perplexing as the theodicy question.
For centuries, Christian theologians have sought to explain
how the devastating reality of evil in the world is consistent
with belief in an all-powerful and all-loving God. Historical
consideration of this issue, however, has been dominated
by Saint Augustine, whose writings on theodicy have been
overwhelmingly influential in both Catholic and Protestant
circles. It has been only in the past few decades that
clearly defined alternatives to Augustine's traditional theodicy
have been proposed. Foremost among these innovators are theologians
like John Hick (who has constructed an "lrenaean" theodicy),
philosophers Alvin Plantinga and Austin Farrer (who have
done significant work on the free will defense), and a number
of others, including Whiteheadian-Hartshornean process theists.
theodicy issue undeniably is an exceptionally complex problem;
yet it can be understood essentially as addressing two principal
questions and as providing two main types of answers. The
questions are to explain how God's existence is consistent
with both "moral evil" (sin, envy, greed, deceit,
etc.) and "physical evil" (droughts, famines, disease,
birth defects, etc.). The two types of answers commonly are
referred to as the "existential" and "theoretical" approaches.
The existential (or practical approach) appeals to "faith" as
the only (or, at least, the ultimate) solution; human beings,
we are told, are incapable of comprehending fully why God
permits or perhaps causes evil, and it is thought to be pointless,
if indeed not also impious and blasphemous, to question God's
ways. We must cope with the evil as best we can, proponents
of the faith solution advise, and persevere in our belief
that everything happens for a "morally justifiable reason," known
only to God.
of our greatest theological minds throughout the centuries,
nevertheless, have felt a pressing intellectual and religious
obligation to pursue the theodicy problem rationally; indeed,
it is the very nature of "theology'' to seek a rational
understanding of religious beliefs. This theoretical (or
rational) approach concedes that our finite human perspective
is limited, but at the same time insists that we must seek
some understanding of the reasons why God would cause or
permit evil and suffering in the first place, and indeed
why God apparently allows such miseries to continue unabated.
Yet Hartshorne has observed what unfortunately what is all
too true: we have a general populace which, for the most
part, inclines to be religious, yet which "shies away
from any attempt at rational discussion of religious issues" (Omnipotence,
attitude seems incredibly cavalier, for while rational reflection
on the theodicy problem may not be able to create faith where
none existed, it most assuredly is indispensable in helping
to "preserve an already existing faith from being overcome
by this dark mystery" (Hick, Evil 7-9). Religious leaders,
I respectfully submit, have an obligation to apprise themselves
of current theological deliberations on such issues and to
disperse this information (in an appropriate manner) to the
people under their care.
Some time ago, I complained that there was an unjustifiable
lack of critical scholarly attention to Hartshorne's substantial
contributions to the theodicy issue and, indeed, to process
theodicy in general. This situation fortunately has changed
somewhat, as growing numbers of commentators (both sympathetic
and antagonistic) have begun to discuss seriously and assess
critically the various aspects of process theodicy. Griffin's
notable book, God, Power, and Evil (1976), deserves much
of the credit for this belated scholarly interest: by means
of his meticulous analyses of the dominant traditional Christian
theodicies (generally understood by process theists to be
such prominent figures as Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Barth,
etc., and especially Aquinas and the influential tradition
he inspired), Griffin has demonstrated conclusively that
process theodicy not only is fully cognizant of the traditional
perspectives, but has constructed an innovative approach
which challenges the very essence of the traditional Christian
is disconcerting, however, that many of the current discussions
of process theodicy have become bogged down in superfluous
arguments, the most common of which attacks the supposed "religious
inadequacy" of the "limited" God of process
thought, Hartshorne and other process theists have responded
persistently and (to my mind) convincingly to this objection;
yet they have done so apparently without overwhelming success.
It must be acknowledged, to be sure, that resistance to the
process conception of God is understandable (to a point),
since process theism certainly has proposed a major shift
in theological thinking. Griffin recently has noted that
the acceptance of the "change from a doctrine of coercive
agency to one of persuasive agency would not be a minor change
in Christian thought: it could be the most radical change
ever made” (Creation, 111). It is precisely this issue
upon which I wish to focus and to expose some of the reasons
why it has contributed so significantly to the continued
opposition toward the process enterprise.
key to the process solution to the theodicy question centers
about this issue of divine power the traditional interpretation
of God as "omnipotent" is rejected by process thinkers
as seriously inadequate and in need of major revisions. Hartshorne
insists that "no worse falsehood was ever perpetrated
than the traditional concept of omnipotence. It is a piece
of unconscious blasphemy, condemning God to a dead world,
probably not distinguishable from no world at all" (Omnipotence
18). This understanding of divine power has been "so
fearfully misdefined" and has so "catastrophically
misled so many thinkers" that the word is now virtually
meaningless and ought to be dropped from theological discourse
(Omnipotence 26). 'The "idea of omnipotence, as it figures
in the classical [formulation of the] problem of evil, is
a pseudo-idea" (Hartshorne, “New Look” 2O3).
Classical theism ''had a confused idea, really a self-contradictory
one ... of the meaning of the term 'God,' '' and therefore
also ''confused ideas about what is to be meant by 'creature,'
or being other than God" (“New Look” 202).
Hartshorne believes that the traditional understanding of
God gives to God absolute power in the sense that God supposedly
would "be able to prevent anything undesirable from
occurring" (“New Look” 202). Hartshorne's
point, of course, is that this idea is "an absurdity": "For
[God] to have power to prevent anything undesirable from
occurring is for [God] to have a monopoly on decision-making
power," (“New Look” 202) and if this were
in fact the case, the very reality of freely creative creatures
would be threatened. An absolute determinism, whether it
be divinely imposed or the result of worldly factors (environmental
or attributed to our characters), is an impossible position
to defend (Omnipotence l9-23).
of freedom" has argued the case thoroughly that all
reality, including the most minute and trivial levels, has
some degree of genuine creativity (although this does not
imply a conscious freedom, except for the higher forms of
life on this planet). The "minimal solution'' to the
problem of evil, then, is to comprehend that it is not God
who determines all events, but "the creaturely freedom
from which evils spring" (Natural 81). Indeed, "since
all creatures have some freedom, all evil can and should
be viewed as involving unfortunate ... cases of creaturely
decision'' (“New Look” 2O5). "This is the
sole, but sufficient reason for evil as such and in general" (Natural
81). With "a multiplicity of creative agents, some risk
of conflict and suffering is inevitable" (Creative 237-8).
God's role is not to decide unilaterally the details of earthly
life--even if this were possible--but rather to provide a
world order in which freedom is possible, and hence the prospects
for great aesthetic goods, despite the inevitable evil and
destruction which also occur.
makes the value judgment, shared by most theists (classical
and process) that "the chance for these good things
was divinely judged worth the risk of the evil things" (“New
Look” 208). God lures and persuades the world's creatures
toward free decisions which, if actualized, promote the most
value possible for every creature and the world at large.
For all levels of creaturely life, "there is a balance
of unity in diversity which is ideally satisfying'' (Creative
304), an appropriate degree of aesthetic value to be sought.
We aspire to experiences which contain "a balance of
unity and variety'' (Creative 304), a "harmony in diversity" (Born
8), experiences which contain both variety and intensity,
and which avoid not only absolute order (regularity, predictability)
but also too much discord, too much complexity and too much
superficiality (triviality). It is simply not the case, despite
the protests of many skeptics, that belief in God is consistent
only with a world of absolute order. "To escape the
evil of triviality necessarily means to risk discord” (Cobb
73), and with each new stage in the advancement of life,
from the primordial chaos to the evolution of human beings,
more aesthetic value was required, and with it the risk of
ever greater evils (Griffin, Creation 285-291).
aesthetic motif is the means by which Hartshorne is able
to answer various critics who have argued that it is not
evil per se which is irreconcilable with belief in God, but
rather gratuitous evil. Hartshorne contends that there
is no "utterly senseless" or "unredeemed evil." "Any
evil has some value from some perspective, for even to know
it exists is to make it contributory to a good, knowledge
itself being a good" (Natural 80). This is not to say,
of course, that Hartshorne believes that all evils are really
parts of a good whole or means to a good end (as the traditional
aesthetic view holds), nor indeed that evil is not genuinely
evil, seen from God's ultimate perspective (as much of traditional
theodicy holds). Nor does Hartshorne believe that the world
is a perfect whole, ordained by God in its details as such.
Hartshorne's point, rather, is that it is not the task of
theodicy to try to justify individual evils; the reason for
evils in general can be explained as the result of the creativity
of the world's creatures, but particular evils "have
no ultimate reason" and are simply "nonrational." "Risk
of evil and opportunity for good are two aspects of just
one thing, multiple freedom" (Natural 81).
and other import aspects of Hartshorne's theodicy (his argument
that evil is "overcome" by God; his defense of "objective
immortality"; his utilization of the increasingly popular
vision of a suffering God; and his revised versions of the
theistic proofs, etc.) (Whitney, Evil) merit and demand far
more serious critical attention than they have received to
date. In this essay, however, I wish to confine my discussion
to the one particular aspect of Hartshorne's theodicy which
seems especially troublesome and controversial: the question
of divine power. I have no illusions, to be sure, that the
complex and unresolved problems which center about this question
can be settled in a short essay; even the most rudimentary
overtures toward a solution will necessitate the concentrated
efforts of many thinkers. My intention here is to expose
some of the problems which must be addressed and to clarify
and advance some of the arguments I have made previously.
of the most common protests against Hartshorne's theodicy
is that the process God is "too weak," "too
limited" in power. Stephen Ely was among the first to
lodge this complaint several decades ago, (Religious) and
it has been reiterated by most critical commentators since
then. John Hick, for example, (after virtually ignoring process
theodicy in his classic book, Evil and the God of Love and
in the first two editions of his Philosophy of Religion)
recently has insisted that "the fundamental criticism
of a process theodicy must be a criticism of the doctrine
of a limited God," (Irenaean 122) and Frederick Sontag,
Stephen Davis and John Roth all have expressed a similar
concern in their assessments of David Griffin's process theodicy
(Encountering Evil). Even writers sympathetic to process
thought have found this issue particularly troublesome. Daniel
Day Williams, for example, was concerned that Whitehead's
God is "too weak," a criticism he did not extend
to Hartshorne, interestingly enough, since he believed that
Hartshorne's God exerts some measure of coercive power (a
point we shall address later).
and other process theists, of course, have contested this
critique. "Instead of saying that God's power is limited," Hartshorne
insists, "suggesting that it is less than some conceivable
power, we should rather say: [God's] power is absolutely
maximal, the greatest possible, but even the greatest possible
power is still one power among others, is not the only power" (DR,138).
'The solution to the problem of evil is not to be found in
the traditional strategies which seek to explain why an all-powerful
God has caused or (at the very least) permitted so much suffering
and anguish in the world (for example, as tests of faith,
as punishment for sin, as having redemptive or educational
value, etc.); the solution lies in the realization that
God does not cause the details of earthly events, but rather
provides a world order which contains the opportunity for
aesthetic value and also, unavoidably, the evil and suffering
which arises from this creaturely potential.
fundamental point made by process theists is that the classical
conception of an all-powerful God is seriously deficient.
Griffin has demonstrated convincingly and indisputably (in
my opinion) that traditional theologians credited the deity
with "coercive omnipotence. Nothing could resist God's
transitive power. No cooperation by creatures was needed
for God to produce effects in the world" (Griffin, Faith
97, God) It matters not, I wish to emphasize, whether God
unilaterally controls all events or whether God voluntarily
has given creatures some degree of genuine free will: in
either case God has controlling power and could (and perhaps
should) have suppressed creaturely decisions and actions
intermittently to prevent catastrophes like the holocaust,
devastating famines and birth defects, etc., all of which
cause such appallingly gratuitous and apparently avoidable
misery and distress. It does not seem unreasonable that the
God conceived by classical theism could have prevented the
worst of these miseries and, indeed, could have done so without
significantly altering genuine creaturely freedom.
to this point as the recent writings of David Basinger who
has argued that while this particular criticism has been
directed by process theists against classical theodicy, the
same criticism holds against process theism. Basinger's contention,
that process theists "have failed to demonstrate that
a being with the acknowledged powers of the God of process
theism could not coerce," (113) can be maintained, however,
only if his provocative and controversial critique of process
theism is accepted. Otherwise, the process challenge holds:
it is the classical theist who must explain why God has not
intervened to prevent the most horrific of earthly miseries,
not the process theist who must do so.
issue, relevant to the point, has been raised by a number
of recent commentators. Nancy Frankenberry, for example,
suggests that there is "a fundamental distortion" in
the common practice of process theists in pitting their vision
of a persuasive God against the coercive God of traditional
theism (180). Lewis Ford likewise has cautioned that while
Whitehead contrasted the terms, "persuasion" and "coercion," the
latter is used only once in Whitehead's entire corpus, despite
the current widespread use of the contrasting terms in the
process literature. Ford maintains that the term "coercion" is
a poor description of classical omnipotence, although he
concedes that the persuasion-coercion rhetoric "may
have some usefulness within the context of theodicy." Ford
insists, moreover, that few classical theists would admit
that their conception of God's omnipotence entails a divine
determinism (“Divine” 267-274).
suggestion, nevertheless, is that rather than trying to circumvent
the contrast, persuasion and coercion, we ought to seek a
far more explicit clarification of its meaning. Process theists
will continue to ascribe "solely persuasive power" to
God, and it seems indisputable that the God of traditional
theism has coercive power, whether or not this power is exercised.
'The term "persuasion," moreover, necessitates
an understanding of its antithesis, "coercion," a
point confirmed by Morris Cohen's "law of polarity" (accepted
and utilized by Hartshorne): "ultimate contraries are
correlatives, mutually interdependent, so that nothing real
can be described ... devoid and independent of [its polar
opposite]" (PSG, 2).
of my own recent writings (Evil; “Process”) have
focused upon the persuasive-coercive rhetoric, and while
certainly I recognize that even to begin to understand divine
causal power is to take up a perplexing and undeniably complicated
task, I believe that the persuasion-coercion contrast is
indispensable for a proper appreciation of process theodicy
and, indeed, for a reasonable assessment of classical theodicy.
My primary concern is that explicit and precise definitions
of persuasive and coercive power have not been forthcoming
in the process literature to date. As such, the language
Hartshorne and other process theists have used to describe
divine persuasive power often is ambiguous and misleading.
Ford (and several others) have conceded this much to me,
acknowledging that I have "shown Hartshorne's language
to be imprecise" (letter). Robert Mesle, for example,
has acknowledged that "Whitney is correct in asserting
that Hartshorne describes God's law-establishing activity
in terms which cannot be distinguished from coercion" (58).
Indeed, my contention is that many of Hartshorne's references
to divine persuasion ambiguously imply what could just as
easily be understood as coercion, despite the fact that this
clearly is what he has wished to imply. Hartshorne has responded
(in private correspondence) that my concern may be merely
a matter of semantics, yet I respectfully submit that the
issue is far more serious than this. I have given detailed
examples elsewhere, but a quick overview here seems appropriate,
since the points I have made formerly are central to the
issue under discussion. I am convinced that until a resolution
of the issue is forth-coming, it will impede a full appreciation
of the process vision of God and contribute to the persistent
wave of resistance to the entire process enterprise. Critics,
as we have noted, long have argued that the process God is
too limited and too weak; yet my concern is that the process
God can be indicted, with some justification, as being virtually
indistinguishable from the all-powerful classical God, a
concern recently corroborated by Basinger and Davaney, among
divine lure, according to Hartshorne, is prehended by creatures
as an element in our antecedent causal world, with God as
the "supreme" or eminent "stimulus" therein
(“Religion” 262; Philosophers Speak 274). All
creatures have some awareness of God, although this perception
is not often "clear and distinct'' (DR 140). Our discernment
of the divine lure most often is unconscious (“Religion” 257),
and in this sense, "irresistible" (Whitehead’s
164), for "there must be some mode of divine power which
cannot simply be disregarded" (“Religion” 258).
God's lure, moreover, is "uniquely eloquent and appealing," since "it
offers to each creature what the creature most wants or appreciates
in the way of intrinsic value" (“Religion” 261).
For God "to alter us he has only to alter himself. God's
unique power over us is his partly self-determined being
as our inclusive object of awareness." Indeed, "as
this object changes, we are compelled to change in response" (DR
139). "God molds us, by presenting at each moment a
partly new ideal or order of preference which our unselfconscious
awareness takes as object, and thus renders influential upon
our entire activity" (DR 142). God inspires us with
an "appeal, attractiveness, or "charm" with
a lure so relevant to our natures and needs that we cannot "even
wish not to respond": we "cannot choose but hear" (“Religion” 258,
26l). We do not only hear the divine lure but "in the
depths of consciousness we feel and accept the divine ordering" (“New
submit that these references (and others in Hartshorne's
imposing corpus, as well as in the writings of other process
theists) are not unambiguously supportive of divine persuasive
power. Without a more precise rhetoric and a more substantial
justification, they could be understood to imply divine coerciveness,
for they seem (cumulatively, as well as individually) to
suggest a divine causation which is unilaterally effective.
The reference cited at the end of the former paragraph, to
note but one example, does not make the necessary distinction
between our feeling of the divine lure and our acceptance
of it. That the divine lure is felt unconsciously and irresistibly
is not in dispute, but the language used gives the impression
that the lure is also accepted irresistibly, despite the
fact that this is not what Hartshorne wished to convey. I
do not feel that this is merely a question of semantics,
nor do I feel that I have interpreted the references (cited
above) out of their proper contexts. It is clear what Hartshorne's
position is: what is not so clear is the rhetoric used to
justify and defend his position.
has argued that while process theists agree that
God's lure is unilaterally felt, it is not (supposedly) coercively
or unilaterally actualized. This seems to me to be much the
same point I have made in calling attention to the ambiguity
between our feeling of the divine lure and our acceptance
of it, yet Basinger has attributed to me a different point,
one which I do not hold and one which he rightly rejects.
I am aware that the "crucial question is not whether
God unilaterally lures each entity [since this is indisputable]
but whether such luring ever insures (unilaterally brings
it about) that God's ideal aim.... is actualized." I
am not as convinced as Basinger is, however, that the fact
that God unilaterally brings it about that we have a "cognitive/effective" feeling
of the divine lure implies that "the God of process
theism is coercive in this sense” (28). The point at
issue is whether God brings it about unilaterally that we
accept the lure. Basinger postulates that it is possible
(in some circumstances, which he has defined only vaguely)
that the God of process theism could act coercively; my position
is that the process God acts solely persuasively, but that
an adequate justification of this central assertion is lacking
in the process literature.
point, I believe, is substantiated further by several additional
passages In Hartshorne's writings which not merely and unambiguously
idly coercive agency (unilateral action) by God, but seem
to insist upon its necessity, despite the fact that this
is not what Hartshorne has wished to convey. "God tolerates
variety," he writes, only "up to the point beyond
which it would mean chaos and not a world .... God prevents
reality from losing all definite character" (Man’s
Vision 265). Hartshorne contends, moreover, that God must
continually insure that creaturely freedom does not destroy
itself, a task which is accomplished by restraining our freedom: "God
... set[s] limits by constraint to the destruction of mutuality" (Man’s
Vision l73) and apparently does so coercively. Hartshorne,
in fact, uses this very term: "Coercion to prevent the
use of coercion to destroy freedom generally is in no way
action without social awareness but one of its crucial expressions.
Freedom must not be free to destroy freedom 'The logic of
love is not the logic of pacifism" (Man’s Vision
l73). "Process would come to an end," he argues, "if
limits were not imposed upon the development of incompatible
lines of process. The comprehensive order of the world is
enjoyed, but not determined or created, by ordinary actual
entities" (Whitehead’s 164).
there certainly is no dispute that Hartshorne insists upon
a vision of God as solely persuasive, I must conclude that
these references are unfortunate examples of imprecise and
ambiguous language. My contention has been confirmed recently
by Sheila Greeve Davaney's argument that "Hartshorne's
position concerning divine power as the capacity to influence
is far less developed and clearly articulated than is his
conception of receptive power .... his understanding of God
as cause seems developed in only the most rudimentary manner” (170).
I have given several examples of this point previously, but
one further illustration, I propose, is the absence of a
clearly defined distinction between God's imposition of the
causal limits to our freedom and the divine luring of our
free acts and decisions within those general limits. My point
is that Hartshorne's references to the imposition of natural
laws imply coercion, and not only is this contrary to what
Hartshorne wished to convey, but it substantiates further
the impression that the divine causal luring of creaturely
acts and decisions within the limits established by the laws
may also be coercive.
decides upon the basic outlines of creaturely actions, the
guaranteed limits within which freedom is to operate" (“New
Look” 206), according to Hartshorne. "A divine
prehension can use its freedom to create, and for a suitable
period maintain, a particular world order" (WP,l64). "Only
God can decide natural or cosmic laws” (“New
Look” 209); “a multitude of agents could not
select a common world and must indeed simply nullify one
another's efforts" (Philosophers Speak 273-274).
of course, does not regard the imposition of natural laws
by God as a coercive act, since (among other reasons) the
laws are merely "statistical and approximate" (Creative
5l, l66); God, moreover, "must constantly 'persuade'
things to obey the laws" (“Process” 173).
Yet my concern is that these are oblique and insufficient
explanations of a divine causation which supply is solely
persuasive; Whitehead's view that the laws of nature are
ant seems more obviously consistent with divine persuasion,
although I am not at all certain how creatures could have
fashioned natural laws on their own. I do not dismiss, accordingly,
Hartshorne's contention that the natural laws are imposed
by God; I see this as the more viable option. My point, bow-ever,
is that this contention has not been established explicitly
as being compatible with divine persuasion.
am not fully appeased by Ford's proposal that we do not feel
coerced by natural laws. The point is not whether we
feel coerced but whether we are coerced, and the fact that
the natural laws limit what we can do is difficult (for me,
at least, and for some others) to distinguish from coercion.
I can appreciate Ford's objection to my suggestion that anything
which affects us and which is beyond our control and consent
is difficult to distinguish from coercion: my working definition
of coercion (as such) may have been too vaguely stated. The
obvious response, I realize, is that the limiting of freedom
by the imposition of natural laws is not coercive, since
it is the enabling condition for freedom. Freedom, moreover,
is a function of creativity which God coordinates by valuing
the alternatives we confront. I accept this point and have
acknowledged it previously, but I suggest that a more thorough
and convincing defense of it is in order. Ford himself, I
would note, has argued that Hartshorne's God appears to be
too much in control, that "there is no way to respond
to a law of nature, particularly if imposed by God; it must
be obeyed, willy-nilly, for we have no choice in the matter" (Two
79). Ford's further point of clarification, moreover (a point
made previously by Hartshorne), that the divine aim cannot
be coercive since it is apprehended so obliquely by us (“Divine” 269),
is not entirely convincing: I am aware that the lure is unconsciously
prehended; the problem is that this unconscious apprehension
is described as irresistible, compelling, etc. (as noted
above), ambiguously implying coercive, unilateral control.
noting this problem in previous writings, I have given the
impression to several commentators that, despite a commitment
to Hartshornean process theism, I have proposed ascribing
coercive power to God. This is not an accurate assessment
of my position, yet neither am I convinced that the point
at issue can be easily resolved. Ford's terse comment, for
example, that "the laws of nature would not be coercive,
regardless of whether they were divinely imposed or... whether
they characterize the average general behavior of past actualities,
since they constitute part of the original enabling conditions” (“Divine” 271)
has not alleviated my concern that the imposition of such
laws ambiguously implies coercion. The fact that this concern
is shared by others confirms my sense of a present lack of
a full and clear resolution of the issue. My apprehension
is shared, as noted above, by Davaney (among others) who
concluded her recent study of the theistic visions of Hartshorne
and Barth with the comment that "it is difficult to
discern any difference between Hartshorne's irresistible
persuasion and Barth's gracious determinism at this point";
indeed, as she states, "as long as the notion of absolute
irresistibility is associated with cosmic laws, then suspicions
will remain concerning whether Hartshorne is offering a disguised
determinism or merely an ill-conceived indeterminism" (191).
acknowledge Hartshorne's suggestion (“private correspondence”)
nevertheless, that it makes no sense to talk of coercion
with respect to electrons (for example): while electrons
do in fact conform to natural laws, we have no reason to
suppose they would want to do otherwise. I appreciate Hartshorne's
point, moreover, that we are free not in spite of the laws
imposed by God but because of them (for otherwise there would
be only chaos and no world order): I grant that the natural
laws are the enabling conditions for creaturely actualization.
Nonetheless, I am not alone in wondering whether the vision
of a purely persuasive God has been safeguarded adequately,
and the consequences for process theism, I suggest, are significant:
if God could coercively establish natural laws, or if God
appears coercively at times to lure creaturely acts and decisions
within the limits imposed by the laws, then it is reasonable
to ask why God does not coerce at others times to eliminate
evils and suffering. This is the dilemma faced by classical
Christian theodicy, and one which process theists supposedly
is significant to note that there have been thinkers sympathetic
to process thought who have argued the case for divine coercion
(or at least who have assumed it). Norman Pittenger, for
example, has suggested that while the God of Whitehead and
Hartshorne acts "primarily" persuasively, God acts
coercively in a secondary way (107). Pittenger, to my knowledge,
has not followed through with respect to this brief statement,
except to note, equally tersely, that the process God must
use "coercion to prevent [the] cosmos from becoming
anarchy or chaos" (57). This seems to me a case in point
where a major commentator has been misled by imprecise language
and the lack the necessary substantiation in defense of a
divine causal agency which is solely persuasive.
late Daniel Day Williams may be a further case in point:
he has argued that, unlike Whitehead, “Hartshorne is
right in stressing also the coercive aspects of our religious
experience.... There are large coercive aspects in the divine
governance of the world" (“How does God Act?” 177).
Williams unfortunately did not elaborate fully upon this
provocative statement with respect to Hartshorne, although
he has sought to provide the basis for an understanding of
divine power which allows for more coercion than Whitehead
was willing to concede, offering us a vision of "the
divine companion," the suffering God, who acts to overcome
the world's anguish and suffering. What is interesting in
this argument is Williams' insistence that "the structures
of life coerce us," implying that God "does exercise
coercive power'' (“Time” 461): "coercive
elements ... seem as necessary to a real universe as the
persuasive aspects," he contended, and "no organism
would survive five seconds on the exercise of [divine] tenderness
alone." Whitehead's vision of a God which acts solely
persuasively leads him, according to Williams, to ignore "the
wide range of types of force, or coercion, and of mutual
interaction. These would seem to have their place," however, "in
the necessities of being, and therefore require us to find
their place in God's being." Whitehead, although apparently
not Hartshorne, according to Williams, "underestimated
the disclosure of the divine initiative in religious experience" and
thus "has given a partially inadequate account of the
relation between God and the world" (“Deity” 370-371).
Janzen, furthermore, has argued against Ford that the "effort
to conceive of God's activity solely in terms of persuasion" is
misconceived. Janzen believes that divine power is better
understood "in terms both of efficacy and of finality,
of coercion and of persuasion" (405). This argument,
however, and his contention that the argument can be shown
to be consistent with Whitehead's writings, have not been
substantiated (to my knowledge). The issue, of course, is
whether it can be substantiated.
contribution to the problem is helpful: God, he has suggested,
is limited by metaphysical principles about the way actualities
can be ordered, and since the deity has not created the world "ex
nihilo,'' entities have "inherent" power which
cannot be "canceled out or overridden by God." As
such, God "cannot control [completely] but can only
persuade what we become and how we affect others" (Griffin,
Creation 105). In my opinion, this argument supports the
central theistic vision of process theism: God acts and indeed
must act solely persuasively. Yet I insist that my concern
is also warranted: there remains an unsettling ambiguity
and an unsatisfying lack of a more complete justification
of this important thesis.
fact that Griffin's argument (just noted) has been disputed
by Basinger confirms my point. Basinger contends that for
Griffin to "establish that God could never control our
behavior, it must be shown that there exists some eternal,
necessary metaphysical principle which allows only for the
existence of actualities who are free to reject God's initial
aim at all times." Basinger argues, moreover, that "process
theists have given us no good reason to believe that their
God could not coerce, and hence that their 'persuasive' God
is significantly different than the 'coercive' God of some
forms of classical Christian theism" (27). Process theodicy,
as such, is "no mere adequate" than ''the classical
theism in which it is also held that God has voluntarily
chosen to refrain from significant (if any) unilateral involvement
in earthly affairs.” (Basinger 39).
proposal is based largely upon an appeal to various examples
of psychological manipulation which supposedly achieve the
desired ends unilaterally; he insists that the process God
has this apparently unexercised option available. I have
reservations about the viability of this argument, yet
I have no reservations in regarding Basinger's proposal as
but one further manifestation of my concern that there is
far too much ambiguity in the process literature concerning
the terms "persuasive" and "coercive" power,
both with respect to God and to creatures. 'This accounts
not only for the various recommendations that more coercive
power be attributed to the process God and/or that such power
is part of the divine causal agency, but also may account
for the recurring critical assessments of process thought
which find its vision of a solely persuasive God profoundly
lacking in appeal.
suggest that the most promising means of seeking a resolution
to this problem is for process theists to demonstrate (far
more clearly than has been accomplished to date) the vast
and perhaps unlimited range of power available to God. Ford
has referred to divine causal activity as "indirectly
coercive," yet "directly persuasive" (Lure
17), and Griffin has suggested that there is an "intertwining
of elements of coercion and pure persuasion on the continuum
of forms of persuasion" exercised by God; he has used
the term "coercive persuasion" in contrast to "pure
persuasion" in his brief explanation of this point (“Creation” 97).
Williams and Jansen, as noted above, have argued much the
same, as have some others as well. For his part, Hartshorne
has maintained that there is an unlimited range of potentiality
offered by God to creatures for actualization, and it
does not seem unreasonable to me to suggest that there is
likewise an unlimited range of divine causal influence, extending
from that which constitutes a minimal degree of causal action
to that which constitutes a maximum degree of such action-without
it ever becoming coercive in the sense of overriding genuine
creaturely freedom. Hartshorne surely is correct in acclaiming
Whitehead's ascription of solely persuasive power to God
as "one of the greatest of all metaphysical discoveries" (DR,
142); yet the broad scope of this divine causal power, short
of an absolute coercion, must be more clearly defined.
must be acknowledged, of course, that even to begin to comprehend
how God acts is probably the most enigmatic (and also, perhaps.
the most significant) of theological questions, one which
may lie forever beyond full human comprehension. Nevertheless,
the metaphysical and moral foundation for a solely persuasive
God is been formulated in the process literature, despite
the lack of a fully justified defense of this vision. What
remains to be accomplished is a more precise delineation
of the range of persuasive power utilized by God, some of
which is more "persuasive" and hence more "coercive."
theism is aware that God has omnipotent power and yet that
human beings nevertheless are free. Biblical texts assume
likewise both an absolute divine sovereignty and genuine
human responsibility. I propose that process theism is
correct in holding that it makes no sense to speak of absolute
divine coercive power; yet I am left wondering whether it
makes sense to speak of an absolute divine persuasive power.
It seems to me that we must ascribe a mixture of persuasive
and coercive power to God; that is, that there must be an
infinite range of divine persuasive power, much of which
is more persuasively influential, and hence more coercive,
without it ever being an absolute coercion. This proposal
calls for a careful and detailed justification. The task
before us seems clear.
Basinger, David. Divine Power in Process
Cobb, John, and David Griffin. Process
Davaney, Sheila Greeve. Divine Power. Philadelphia: Fortress,
Davis, Stephen T., ed. Encountering Evil. Atlanta: John Knox,
Dombrowski, Daniel. "Pacifism and Hartshorne's Dipolar
Theism." Encounter (1987): 337-350.
Ely, Stephen. The Religious Availability
of Whitehead's God.
of Wisconsin Press, 1942.
Ford, Lewis. "Divine Persuasion and Coercion." Encounter (1986): 267-274.
---. Letter to Barry Whitney. February 1987.
---. Two Process Philosophers. Tallahassee: American Academy
Frankenberry, Nancy. "Some Problems with Process Theodicy." Religious
Griffin, David. "Creation Ex Nihilo, The Divine Modus
Operandi, and The Imitatio Dei." Faith
and Creativity. Ed. George Norgulen and George Shields. St
Louis: CBP, 1987.
---. "Creation Out of Chaos and the Problem of Evil." Encountering
Evil. Ed. Stephen T. Davis. Atlanta:
John Knox, 1981.
---. God, Power and Evil. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1976.
Hartshorne, Charles. Born to Sing. Bloomington: Indiana UP,
---.Creative Synthesis and Philosophic Method. La
Salle: Open Court, 1970.
---. Letter to Barry Whitney. May, 1987.
---. Man's Vision of God and the Logic
of Theism. Hamden:
Archon Books, 1941.
---. A Natural Theology for our Time. New Haven. Yale UP,
---. "A New Look at the Problem of Evil." Current
Philosophical Issues: Essays in Honor of Curt John Ducasse.
Ed. F. C. Dommeyer. Springfield, IL: Charles C. Thomas, 1966.
---. Omnipotence and Other Theological
---."Process and the Nature of God." Traces
of God in a Secular Culture. Ed. G. F. Mclean. New York:
Alba House, 1978. 117-14l.
---. “Religion in Process Philosophy." Religion
in Philosophical and Cultural Perspective. Princeton D. Van
Nostrand, 1967. 246-268.
--- and Reese, William. Philosophers
Speak of God. Chicago:
The University of Chicago Press, 1953.
---. Whitehead’s Philosophy. Lincoln: University of
Nebraska Press, 1972.
Hick, John. Evil and the God of Love. 2nd ed. New York: Harper
---. An Ireanean Theodicy." Encountering
Evil. Ed. Stephen
T. Davis. Atlanta: John Knox, 1981.
Janzen, Gerald. "Modes of Power and the Divine Relativity." Encounter
Mesle, Robert. Review of Barry L Whitney, Evil
and the Process God. Process Studies (1987): 57-61.
Peterson, Michael. Evil and the Christian
God. Grand Rapids,
MI: Baker Book House, 1982.
Pittenger, Norman. "Process Theology." Expository
Times (1973): 56-57.
Whitney, Barry. “Charles Hartshorne." Non-Violence--Central
to Christian Spirituality. Ed. Joseph T. Culliton.
New York: Edwin Mellen Press, 1982. 217-237.
---. “Does God Influence the World's Creativity? Hartshorne's
Doctrine of Possibility." Philosophy
Research Archives (1981): 613-622.
---. Evil and the Process God. New York: Edwin Mellen Press,
---. "Hartshorne's New Look at Theodicy." Studies
in Religion, 1979: 281-291.
---. “Process Theism: Does a Persuasive God Coerce?" Southern
Journal or Philosophy, (1979):133-143.
---. The Question of Theodicy in the
Neoclassical Metaphysics of Charles Hartshorne. Ph.D.Dissertation,
McMaster University, 1977.
---. What Are They Saying About God and
Evil? New York: Paulist
Williams, Daniel Day. "Deity, Monarchy, and Metaphysics:
Whitehead's Critique of the Theological Tradition." The
Relevance of Whitehead. Ed. I. Leclerc. New York: Humanities
Press, 1961. 353-37.
---. "How Does God Act? An Essay in Whitehead's Metaphysics." Process
and Divinity. Ed. W. L. Reese and E. Freeman.
La Salle: Open Court, 1964. 161-180.
---. The Spirit and the Forms of Love. New York: Harper and
---. "Time, Progress and the Kingdom of God." Process
Philosophy and Christian Thought. Ed. Delwin
Brown, Ralph James and Gene Reeves. Indianapolis and New
York. Bobbs- Merrill, 1971. 441-463.
---. What Present Day Theologians are
Thinking. 3rd ed. New
York: Harper and Row, 1967.
 See Hick, Evil and the God of Love.
 For references, see Whitney, What Are They Saying About
God and Evil?
 see Whitney, What Are They Saying
About God and Evil?
 see also my "Process Theism" and "Hartshorne’s “New
 See Whitney, Evil and the
Process God, 117-124.
 See, for example, Peterson, Evil
and the Christian God.
 See Daniel Day Williams, "Deity,
Monarchy, and Metaphysics"; "Time,
Progress, and the Kingdom of God"; "How Does God
Act?"; What Present Day Theologians
are Thinking; The Spirit and the Forms of Love; etc.
 See Whitney, What Are They Saying
About God and Evil?,
 I concede, of course, that classical theists have arguments
against the plausibility of this
critique. God, it is proposed, perhaps has intervened and
perhaps has eliminated the most
horrendous of evils; any further intervention would be incompatible
with genuine human
freedom and argument which is unfalsifiable.
 Basinger cites my 1979 article, "Process
the reference for his claim that to assert that God never
coerces "is sometimes thought so mean that God never
unilaterally brings about any state of affairs" (Divine,
 See my chapter on Hartshorne and pacifism, "Charles
Hartshorne," in Non-violence, 217-237; and Daniel Dombrowski, "Pacifism," 337-350.
In an earlier
article, I tried so show how Hartshorne's understanding
of possibility could support a theory of divine persuasion,
despite criticisms like Ford's: see my "Does
God Influence the World's Creativity?" 613-622.
 see also Ford's The Lure of God,
 Griffin mates a similar point in "Creation," 112-114.
 It is regrettable that atheistic
writer Robert Mesle has argued that I have fallen into this
classical trap. His assessment of my position, however, is
based upon a misunderstanding of what 1 have written: I have
not ascribed coercive power to God. (See Mesle's review of
my Evil and the Process God). Another commentator,
Marvin Collins, argues that I rightly espouse coercive power
to the process God (God and Evil in
the Process Thought of A.N. Whitehead, Charles Hartshorne,
and David Griffin: A Question of Theological Coherence, unpublished dissertation
(Fuller Theological Seminary, 1986).
 This may seem to be an unfair statement since I do not
have space here so make
clear what my problems are with Basinger's argument. In brief,
I find problematic the assumption of a one-to-one correspondence
of the uses of coercion in human experience and the meaning
of the term with respect to God. Ford's point is relevant: "Coercion
is readily understood on the level of social or physical
behavior, but its proper metaphysical definition is difficult
to ascertain" (The Web 17).
 See my Evil ant the Process God, 109-111; and my "Does
God Influence the World's Creativity? Hartshorne's Doctrine
 See D.A. Carson, Divine Sovereignty
and Human Responsibility.
Barry L. Whitney was Professor of Christianity and Culture, and Philosophy of Religion at the University
of Windsor, Windsor ON Canada from 1976 to 2013. He is now retired in Ottawa, Canada where he continues his research.
WHITNEY, 2008. Please request permission from the author
at DrBarryWhitney@mac.comw.ca to
use this publication in whole or in part in web publications
or in other forms of publication and dissemination. An
earlier version of this article was published in Hartshorne,
Process Philosophy and Theodicy, Albany: State University
of New York Press, 1989.