Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Initial Response to Play the Ball Where the Monkey Drops It

For my "Evil, Suffering, and Death in the New Testament" class we are required to keep a reading journal. Last week's book was Gregory Knox Jones' Play the Ball Where the Monkey Drops It: Why We Suffer and How We Can Hope. It is essentially a primer in Process Theology's response to the problem of evil, though it is not written as a work of academic theology, and never actually mentions "Process Theology." It is a very pastoral book, written not by a theologian but by a Presbyterian minister responding not to the concerns of the academy but the concerns of the congregation. What follows is my reading journal entry for last week, after reading the book. The entry reads more like a book review than a journal entry, reinforcing perhaps a point that my pastor made last week after hearing me preach in our chapel communion service, when she noticed that for great theological treatises I don't even need notes, but when I'm talking about myself I read verbatum from a manuscript. Be that as it may, here is what I wrote in response to Gregory Knox Jones' Play the Ball Where the Monkey Drops It:

My first response to Gregory Knox Jones’ Play the Ball Where the Monkey Drops It is that it was a delightful read. His stories are lively and engaging, and his concerns are refreshingly pastoral. I also appreciated that he takes the philosophic problem of evil seriously. By that I mean this: he recognizes that there is a fundamental logical contradiction between God’s omnipotence and benevolence and the reality of evil and suffering.

While his book is not as rigorously argued as my favorite work on evil from the perspective of Process Theology, Kenneth Cauthen’s The Many Faces of Evil, and while he does not engage the nature of evil in the way that Cauthen does, it serves as an interesting primer on the way that Process Theology meditates on the nature of divine power in the face of the reality of evil and suffering.

The experience of suffering is a legitimate starting point for theology. It is one of the givens of existence, every bit as much as the experience of the holy, the sacred, the other, that which we call “God.” As such, it is valid, I think, to demand that our concepts of God and our reflections of God be accountable to our experience of suffering. This, at a basic level, is what Process Theology does.

In Chapter Five of his book, titled “Persuasive Power,” Jones reflects on the nature of God’s power in the face of the given-ness of suffering. After laying out the basic problem of evil he says this:

If God is all-powerful and loving, then evil should not exist. Yet evil does exist. And not just a little evil here and there, but widespread evil that causes tremendous suffering throughout the planet.

It is from here, the logical impossibility of reconciling God’s unlimited love and power with the brute fact of evil, that Jones argues for the need to understand God’s power in a new way. He could here follow in the footsteps of Christian philosophers like Richard Swinburne, who cling to the language of divine omnipotence while places some logical boundaries around God’s power. But instead he chooses to boldly and honestly assert what I take to be the most responsible theological response to the reality of evil and suffering: “There are some things that God cannot do.”

This statement is troubling to many Christians – nay, to many theists, not just limited to Christian theists – because it radically denies one of our “givens” (see Jones’ reference to Burton Cooper on p. 56) concerning God. Omnipotence is, in fact, such a given that many are incapable of thinking about the word “God” without also thinking about “omnipotence.” I remember taking a philosophy class at a state university, taught by a professor with no personal religious commitments, in which it was categorically stated that “omnipotence” is an essential part of the definition of “God.”

This is also somewhat pastorally challenging. It can rightly be asked how a limited God, a God who allows suffering to happen not for some mysterious reason that humans can never discern, nor for our own good or for any of the other reasons offered up in our formal and informal theodicies, but because God cannot do all things; it can rightly be asked how such a God who lacks the power to initially prevent suffering, to forcibly restrain the forces that cause suffering, can effectively respond to suffering.

It has been suggested to me (by a former minister turned atheist) that we must choose between an omnipotent God who refuses to prevent suffering and an impotent God who is powerless to act in the face of suffering. This, I suggest, is a false dichotomy, and the sort of false dichotomy at work in the minds of many Christians who feel threatened by the statement that there are some things that God can’t do.

We don’t feel the need to impose on anything in the created order the standard we place on God. Of course, this could be because many of us assert that God is radically different from the created order, wholly other, and so it is impossible to make any analogy between God and something created. While I find that sort of thinking about God quite appealing, I also think we should consider this: we would never consider saying that because there are limits on the power of the president, he is essentially impotent. Such a statement would be absurd. Of course there are limits on presidential power – even if some presidents act as though they are unaware of such limits. And, of course the president, despite such limits, is by no means impotent. Both the person and the office contain a great deal of power.

Jones uses his own examples of this sort of argument, saying:

Some seem to think that if God cannot do everything, then God is a weakling. I disagree. We would never say, “If the professor cannot answer every question, he is a useless professor.” Or, “If the physician cannot diagnose every illness, she is a worthless physician.” Such statements are nonsense. Indeed, the professor may open wonderful new worlds to us through brilliant insights, and the physician may save numerous lives through her expertise. Admittedly these are crude analogies, but I trust they make the point.

That is in fact the case for every power we can conceive of in the natural world. Why can’t it be the case for God? Why must God be either omnipotent (as most theists assert) or impotent? I for one can’t come up with a reason.

Jones asserts that not only is God’s power limited, but that power which God does have is quite unlike we often suppose it to be. Jones is wont to wax poetic on the power of God, saying in one of my favorite lines in the whole book, “God is the most powerful force in the universe, brining order out of chaos and making life possible.” But this power is not the brute power to override other wills and impose particular outcomes on situations. Rather, it is what he calls “the power of persuasion."

Jones sees God at work in the world trying to influence situations and bring about the best outcomes, not trying to override the respective wills of each actor. This view of God’s power is quite compelling, in part because it makes sense of things that many of use experience. Many of us have felt the presence of God in our lives. Many of us have “heard” without hearing the “still small voice” of God. Many of us have felt an inexplicable sense of calling, a calling that often takes us far from where we thought we would go in life. In these Jones sees the power of God working to bring about the best in the created order.

This is also compelling because it preserves human freedom (and, I would argue that this freedom extends beyond the bounds of humanity to include all animals, not just the so-called “rational” ones). In fact, Jones takes freedom as, along with the existence of God and the brute fact of suffering, as one of the givens in the created order. I won’t argue with Jones on the given-ness of freedom, as I too experience freedom (or, the determinist would argue, the illusion of freedom) as a given. But, in light of his offering up freedom as a good in a book meditating on the nature of God in the face of evil and suffering, perhaps a few words on the “goodness” of freedom are in order.

Many theodicies hinge on an appeal to free will, arguing variations on this theme: freedom is a good such that its existence offsets the various evils and sufferings that are produced by its creation. That is, God is justified in creating a world that has suffering, because suffering is inevitable in an order that contains authentic freedom, and freedom is so good that it outweighs the collected sufferings that result from it.

When both freedom and suffering are givens – that is, when the experience of both are basic and essential parts of life – the absurdity of this sort of argument is not obvious. As such, we rarely ask ourselves whether or not we would be willing to exchange our freedom for an existence without suffering. If freedom were such an obviously manifest good that it outweighs all concerns about evil and suffering, then it seems to me obvious that all or at least most reasonable people would be categorically unwilling to exchange freedom for anything, as it is a good so precious and so valuable that it makes up for each instance of suffering.

But in times of crisis we learn that, in fact, the opposite is true. When faced with the threat of suffering, the fear of crisis and death, humans are surprisingly willing to exchange a great many individual freedoms (which participate in freedom itself) for even the tiniest illusion of security.

Any book that makes so much of freedom in the face of suffering – even if it does not attempt to offer up a traditional free-will theodicy – should, I think, wrestle more with our willingness to so readily exchange our individual freedoms for some protection from evil, suffering, and death.


Mystical Seeker said...

Great comments. I think you have summarized very well the arguments in favor of believing in a non-omnipotent God.

Troy said...


this is a fantastic intro for someone like me who has no exposure to process theology (at least that I know of) but who has wrestled with this question with great energy; and interestingly, I have certainly considered the core of the solution offered here as a good one, a reasonable one. Though so far my best reponse to suffering has been two fold: one, Jesus healed and showed compassion continually in the gospels; and two, whatever God's relationship to the cosmos, we cannot understand it. I do not think that second point is a cop out; I think it is a fairly rational reflection on the Divine.

And also....the fact of human suffering is horrendous, but we don't really know why we are here, or why the universe is here. Human beings, it seems, may well not be the central point of Creation. Everything we experience may not be the unfolding of a divine plan in which every detail is controlled. We have evolved as life; God sent his son to establish a bridge between us and Him. That, to me, is quite a gesture, however it is understood.

Why can't Christians consistently heal like Jesus to continue his mission of alleviating suffering? I have no idea.

But I am very encouraged by the titles you mention here. Again, I do no not know what process theology is, but the omnipotence of God has always been an extravagant guess on our parts. The Divine, if he made this Universe, is so energetic, vast, and Other from us....my gosh....we proceed with great difficulty in discussing him.

For Christians, the great representative, it could even be said personal-human metaphor of the Divine, is Christ. But even he was human, too.

It is very good to be reading you again, and my sincere congratulations that you are again in school. You belong there, very much, I think. It seems you enjoy it, which is even better!

be well my brother,


crystal said...

He reaches the same conclusion as the guy who wrote When Bad Things Happen to Good People. He also saw God as not omnipotent. My first reaction is that a God who isn't all powerful isn't God ... I really want God to be all powerful :-) I do like the idea of God esing persuasion, though.

Troy said...


if I may say a thing or two:

I'd note almost all theists say there are things God can't do...he cannot violate his nature, whether that means acting in an 'evil' way, or in violation of the laws of logic (if God is all-powerful, why can't he make a rock so big even he can't lift it...this is a ludicrous non-question). It is possible there are other limitations on God's abilities in the made Universe; whether these are somehow self-imposed by God or simply 'the way things are' I can't know, not in this life anyway.

The free will defense, that pain and suffering are the result of human free will or the Fall, I find weak. Disease, natural disasters...these seem to have been with us since the beginning of humanity...though that of course I also cannot know as records of historical observation are quite recent.

Suffering seems part of the human condition, tragically. Why...well, I guess I had better go read these books you and Chris recommend as I have nearly thrown up my hands in trying to understand the why of disease and death.

crystal said...


Sorry - I didn't notice your message until today. One article I liked in this subject is by Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart - Tsunami and Theodicy

I think open theism and guys like John Polkinghorne say that God limits himself, takes risks, aloows free will and an undetermined future. But I don't know - people want God to be good so badly that they are willing to give up on the omnipotent thing to resolve the paradoxes - I'm not willing to give up yet :-)