Excerpts from The God of Becoming and Relationship by Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson
Note from Jay McDaniel
My friend Jennifer, age 18, died recently. Jennifer's father was an alcoholic who abused her. There are two tragedies here. His alcoholism was tragic, because he could have become someone so much better than he was -- for himself and others, including Jennifer. And her suffering was tragic, because it was so painful and she never grew past it. This situation is repeated countless times all over the world, and it illustrates two forms of "evil" that plague us all: missed potential and debilitating suffering that could have, and should have, been otherwise. Such evil happens individually and communally. Groups of people, too, can suffer great harm and also miss their potential for becoming vessels of goodness in the world.
In the face of Jennifer's death, Jennifer's friends and family are momentarily hounded with two questions: Where was God in all of this? And how might I respond? Perhaps process theology can help. One of the best books now available to introduce open and relational (process) theology is God of Becoming and Relationship: The Dynamic Nature of Process Theology It treats many, many topics besides suffering and evil: ritual, joy, justice, community, science, Israel. However, it likewise treats suffering and evil with great sensitivity and wisdom. If you want to know how process theology approaches evil and suffering, read Rabbi Artson's God Almighty? No Way! and the excerpts from God of Becoming and Relationship below. Then buy the book and study guide. Others can be helped, too.
-- Jay McDaniel
Excerpts from the God of Becoming and Relationship by Rabbi Bradley Artson
God does not create the world out of nothing, God is always co-creating with us and (at our best) we with God.
Instead of thinking of creation as ex nihilo, out of nothing—as if there were nothing existing previous to creation and then, in an instant, everything suddenly existed—as much of dominant Western theology does, Process Theology takes a more developmental view. I think it fair to say that most Process theologians, beginning with Alfred Whitehead (and myself included), understand God as the organizing force of an eternally existing reality. Such a view surprises those who restrict their view of creation to the first and third verses in chapter 1 of the book of Genesis: When God began to create heaven and earth.... God said: “Let there be light”; and there was light. They ignore the second verse—“the earth was unformed and void, with darkness over the surface of the deep; and wind from God sweeping over the water”—and creation images from elsewhere in the Bible,3 Midrash, and Kabbalah.
The dominant view filters Genesis telling through a preexistent ideology of an omnipotent, eternal, impassive Deity, forcing readers to constrain the text within the procrustean confines of an effortless, spontaneous moment that created everything that exists today. Such an approach conflicts with fundamental scientific evidence, such as the age of the planet, the cosmic materials out of which life is constructed, the fact that living things have developed from previous living things, and the several mass extinctions that punctuated life on earth prior to the appearance of today’s species, to mention only a few. Equally significant, such a theological imposition depends on, as mentioned above, ignoring the second verse of Genesis. So much for taking the Bible literally!
A contextual reading of the opening verses of Genesis yields the recognition that the unformed and void darkness (tohu va-vohu) existed when God began creating. That bubbling, irrepressible depth remains the source of self-creativity, potentialities, and resistance to all imposed power. God’s creating is not necessarily one of instantiating ex nihilo from without, but rather a process of mobilizing continuous self-creativity from within: An epiphany enables you to sense creation not as something completed, but as constantly becoming, evolving, ascending. This transports you from a place where there is nothing new to a place where there is nothing old, where everything renews itself, where heaven and earth rejoice as at the moment of creation. Two approaches to evil If God is not the coercive despot who created all as it is, if God is found in the steady relational love that invites creation into diverse becoming, what then is evil? As we have learned, in the dominant theology, an omnipotent, omniscient God becomes the source of our suffering, either actively, by commission, or passively, by refraining from intervention. In either case, it is easy to feel abandoned, betrayed, or persecuted by such a coercive power. In such a theology, evil is a conceptual conundrum to be rationalized through better reasoning or to be evaded through redefinition.
Process Theology offers two possible understandings of evil, both facing the tragic nature of evil directly and affirming the innocence of those who suffer. One view addresses evil as that aspect of reality not yet touched by God’s lure or that part of creation that ignores God’s lure. Another Process approach to suffering and evil draws on the thought of medieval Jewish philosopher Moses Maimonides, who acknowledges that much of what we term evil or suffering is a matter of perspective. Maimonides, speaking out of the naturalism that Aristotelian thought makes possible, points out how often what we term evil is simply our perspective on a particular event:
Three understandings of suffering
As we learned in our examination of the Process perspective of continuous creation, the cosmos itself does not follow a predetermined script. Every level of the cosmos follows its own inner dynamic—always facing possibilities, always making choices—and therefore is in the process of becoming, as are we. As Maimonides explains in Process fashion, most human suffering, what we deem evil, is not divine punishment or test, but the result of three broad realities of life.
That’s Life: The Nature of Being Human
The first reality is that it is the nature of material reality to come into being, to grow and flourish for a time, and to then fall apart prior to going out of existence: The first type of evil is that which befalls people because of the nature of coming-to-be and passing-away. I mean to say because of our being endowed with matter. Because of this, infirmities and paralytic afflictions befall some individuals either in consequence of their original natural disposition, or they supervene because of changes occurring in the elements, such as corruption of the air or a fire from heaven and a landslide.3 This realm of suffering is the logical manifestation of dynamism and change. The only alternative, a world of static eternity, is one that few of us would choose—even if it meant embracing an alternative that also brought suffering and death. More importantly, we do not have that choice, which is Maimonides’s point. Dynamism, hence suffering and death, is built into the very nature and logic of materiality.
Tyrannical Domination: Imposing Bad on the Good
It is also possible to understand large swaths of suffering and evil as the result of our freedom, the freedom of the entire cosmos. Sometimes we individuals, or humanity at large, make bad choices, and sometimes the rest of the cosmos makes disastrous choices. This accounts for the next category that we perceive as evil and experience as suffering as described by Maimonides: “The evils of the second kind are those that people inflict upon one another, such as tyrannical domination of some of them over others.”4 This category of evil requires no additional supernatural intervention, but is the immediate result of our freedom and our relatedness.
The Consequences of Our Freedom
The third and final category of evil and suffering is related to the second: our freedom to make poor choices also means that we inflict harm on ourselves when we do not muster the strength and vision to heed the divine lure, what Hans Jonas describes as “the mutedly insistent appeal of [God’s] unfulfilled goal.” Again Maimonides: The evils of the third kind are those that are inflicted upon any individual among us by his own action.... This kind is consequent upon all vices, I mean concupiscence for eating, drinking, and copulation, and doing these things with excess in regard to quantity or irregularity or when the quality of the foodstuffs is bad. For this is the cause of all corporeal and psychical diseases and ailments. The dynamic, ephemeral nature of becoming, the competing lures that tempt us and distract us from God’s lure, the consequences of our choices on others and ourselves—these remain sources of suffering and evil: the consequence of poor diet choices or too many sweets, lack of regular health regimen, bad choice for companionship or community. Process Theology allows us to recognize their sources as proximate, within nature, and not as the judgment or punishment of the Divine. In turn, this realization allows us to continue to perceive God as our ally and source of strength in times of tribulation, to be able to reorient ourselves to focus receptively on implementing the divine lure before us, to freely choose to affirm those relations (and make those choices) that bring us strength, joy, and health. Process Theology opens our eyes to a biblical-rabbinic-kabbalistic view of God as relational and loving. “I am with you, declares the Holy One” (Haggai 1:13), working in, with, and through us to bring order to the chaos in our lives and societies, giving us the strength and insight to know how to struggle for health, connection, and justice.
Moving Beyond Thinking to Action
Understanding God as the pervasive creativity and novelty that permeates all-becoming invites us to stop thinking about the status of evil and to focus instead on how we fight for justice, well-being, and compassion. “You shall love the Holy One your God (Deuteronomy 6:5)—this implies that one should make God beloved by one’s deeds” (Nedarim 81a). Evil and suffering are not intriguing theological puzzles; they are existential goads, calling us to repair the world. This shift from intellectual justification to action has ancient precedent