Philosophy of Religion

Chapter  6. The Problem of Evil

Section 6.  Process Theology and Philosophy

There is an approach to the problem of evil which changes the concept of the deity.  This approach has found more people willing to consider it and some to accept it in a post modern world.  The concept of the deity is not in conformity to the dogmas of the established religions of the West.  There are theologians in the religious traditions of the West who are willing to consider and some even accept that the traditional notion of the deity as a Supreme Being and an All Perfect being may not be the conception that is most consistent with the demands of reasoning. 

Although the idea can be traced back to the Greek philosopher Heraclitus (lived around 500 BC), the idea again became popular in the nineteenth century with the advent of the theory of evolution. The idea influence both philosophers and theologians.  One group of such theologians is in a tradition of thought known as Process Philosophy.  Associated with this approach are philosophers such as Alfred North Whitehead and Charles Hartshorne.

Process philosophy and Open Theism--From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.

In both views, God is not omnipotent in the classical sense of a coercive being. Reality is not made up of material substances that endure through time, but serially-ordered events, which are experiential in nature. The universe is characterized by process and change carried out by the agents of free will. Self-determination characterizes everything in the universe, not just human beings. God and creatures co-create. God cannot force anything to happen, but rather only influence the exercise of this universal free will by offering possibilities. See the entries on Process theology, Panentheism, and Open theism.

Process theology--From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.

Process theology (also known as Neoclassical theology) is a school of thought influenced by the metaphysical process philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead (1861 - 1947).

The concepts of process theology include:

  • God is not omnipotent in the sense of being coercive. The divine has a power of persuasion rather than force. Process theologians have often seen the classical doctrine of omnipotence as involving coercion (arguably mistakenly), and themselves claim something more restricted than the classical doctrine.
  • Reality is not made up of material substances that endure through time, but serially-ordered events, which are experiential in nature.
  • The universe is characterized by process and change carried out by the agents of free will. Self-determination characterizes everything in the universe, not just human beings. God cannot force anything to happen, but rather only influence the exercise of this universal free will by offering possibilities.
  • God contains the universe but is not identical with it (panentheism)
  • Because God contains a changing universe, God is changeable (that is to say, God is affected by the actions that take place in the universe) over the course of time. However, the abstract elements of God (goodness, wisdom, etc.) remain eternally solid.
  • People do not experience a subjective (or personal) immortality, but they do have an objective immortality in that their experiences live on forever in God, who contains all that was.
  • Dipolar theism, or the idea that our idea of a perfect God cannot be limited to a particular set of characteristics, because perfection can be embodied in opposite characteristics; For instance, for God to be perfect, he cannot have absolute control over all beings, because then he would not be as good as a being who moved by persuasion, rather than brute force. Thus, for God to be perfect, he must be both powerful and leave other beings some power to resist his persuasion.

The original ideas of process theology were developed by Charles Hartshorne (1897-2000), and were later expounded upon by John B. Cobb and David Ray Griffin.

Process theology soon influenced a number of Jewish theologians including British philosopher Samuel Alexander (1859-1938), and Rabbis Max Kaddushin, Milton Steinberg and Levi A. Olan, Harry Slominsky and to a lesser degree, Abraham Joshua Heschel. Today some rabbis who advocate some form of process theology include Donald B. Rossoff, William E. Kaufman, Harold Kushner, Anton Laytner, Gilbert S. Rosenthal, Lawrence Troster and Nahum Ward.

Alan Anderson and Deb Whitehouse have attempted to integrate process theology with the New Thought variant of Christianity.

Thomas Jay Oord integrates process theology with evangelical, openness, and Wesleyan theologies.


 In their view the deity or "god' is seen less as an entity than as a process.  The reality of the deity has not been fixed and the being is still developing. The deity and its creations have a bipolar nature.  All existent entities have a mental pole or nature and a physical pole or nature as well.

For these philosophers traditional theism does not work, particularly when considering the discoveries of modern physics, so they conclude that a new concept of God,  is needed along with the view of the world we experience .

As they see it there are a number of problems with traditional theism

  • God’s determination of the future (or knowledge of it) conflicts with human freedom
  • Infinite goodness is incompatible with evil
  • Problems with a spiritual being as the cause of anything material
  • Science and the Theory of Evolution has proven the account in Genesis wrong
  • Creation of the entire universe from nothingness ( ex nihilo) is incoherent because it is thought to be metaphysically impossible to get something from nothing
  • “beginning of time” is a self-contradictory notion
  • God’s consciousness cannot  change if it is of all infinity at once - but consciousness must change
  • Why would a deity want its creations to do anything if doing so does not bring about any change in an eternal deity?

The principle problem is that as the traditional concept of God is considered as incoherent or beset with problems, the traditional conception of deity has led to atheism: first the dualistic nature of the concept of god led to a materialistic science and secondly, there was no longer room for God or divine causation.

Dualism is the view that humans are composed of matter or physical substance (body)  and  spiritual substance (soul) .  But where is the soul to be located in the dualist view?  Is the soul in the body, or is the body in the soul?   How do two such dissimilar substances relate to one another or interact?  Materialism is the view that only matter exists - no non-physical substances exist.   Thus, if the non-physical or spiritual mind cannot influence the body (as there is no mind located in the physical body), then neither could a spiritual entity or deity (god) influence the material world.  There is also no way to explain how the physical universe or world could be in a spiritual being or entity such as a deity or god.

With materialism our knowledge is limited to what is empirically verifiable, what we can detect with our senses, perhaps aided by physical devices and mathematical analyses.  The non-physical or spiritual realm is not available to physical detection and so all claims about spiritual beings are beyond verification because they cannot be empirically detected or proven.  We cannot sense the deity (god) and so for materialism there is no such being.

So the metaphysical traditions of dualism and monism-materialism each present significant problems for the traditional conception of a deity.

With Process Metaphysics there is a different view of what is real.  There are no “substances” or static independent realities.  Instead, there are “actual entities” seen as a dynamic collection of events.  With this view because all is in causal motion, there is also creativity.  There are in addition to the actual entities “eternal objects” –patterns of events which permeate all reality.  Some philosophers called these the “universals”.  Within the Process view nature itself is comprised of creative, experiential events.

So how is the deity viewed by Process Theology?   The deity is thought of as the everlasting eternal entity.  The “god” is a dynamic collection of events, the pattern of which permeates all of reality.  

How does such a deity enable the Process Theologians to respond to the Problem of Evil?  Well to begin with the eternal process can only “create” a world with multiple finite freedom and any world with multiple finite freedom must contain the possibility of evil.  While no particular evil is necessary, the possibility of there being some evil is necessary.  The deity can influence all events, but only as persuasion.  Unfortunately in this view humans suffer more, because there are more possibilities open to them.

The traditional concept of the deity is further altered in that when considering the idea of a god’s Omniscience in the Process view the deity (god) does not know the future.  Since all events exercise some self-determination, the future is not knowable (in principle).  However, once something is, then God can know it. How does this change our concept of God?   The Process idea of the deity is not one of an all perfect being that is all knowing and all powerful and detached from the physical universe existing in an eternal spiritual realm.  Instead the deity is seen as existing both within and beyond the physical universe.  This is Panentheism.  The deity of process philosophy is viewed a partly in the creation and partly beyond or outside of its creation.  There is a relation of the creator to the creation.  It is one of cooperation.  The deity attempts to entice the creations to work with the deity but the creations (humans) cannot be forced to do so.  The deity acts on the creations through the attraction of its values.  The deity can influence the conscious creations but does not directly act upon them and does not force cooperation or compliance. 

Process Philosophy is now most commonly associated with the English philosopher, Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947), and his book Process and Reality: an Essay in Cosmology (1929) is considered one of the most important expositions of process philosophy.

The main application of Whitehead's position was put forward by his pupil, the American philosopher Charles Hartshorne (1897-1999), whose main works include The Divine Relativity (1948) and The Logic of Perfection (1962).


Two particularly good works on Process Theology are these:

Process Theology by John B. Cobb, Jr.  (ENTIRE BOOK) An outline of Process Theology, written by one of its creators.

What Is Process Theology? by Robert B. Mellert (ENTIRE BOOK) Dr. Meller writes about Whiteheadian thought, without the jargon and technical intricacies, so that the lay person might have better understanding of the thinking of the founder of process philosophy.


Consider this manifestation of the reworking of the idea of the deity away from the traditional and toward the post modern by the Roman Catholic priest who is head of the Vatican Observatory is a trained scientist.  Dr George Coyne has spoken and written about the relation of Religion to Science.  He has expressed his view that there need not be a conflict of religious belief with scientific findings. In the controversy concerning Intelligent Design and Evolution Dr. Coyne has expressed these views concerning the nature of the deity.

" Religious believers who respect the results of modern science must move away from the notion of a God who made the universe as a watch that ticks along regularly.  God should be seen more as a parent or one who speaks encouraging and sustaining words.  Scripture is very rich in these thoughts.  It presents a God who gets angry , who disciplines, a God who nurtures the universe.  The universe has a certain vitality like a child does.  It has the ability to respond to words of endearment and encouragement...Words that give life arte richer than mere commands of information.  In such ways does God deal with the universe.  I claim that Intelligent Design diminishes God , makes her/him a designer rather than a lover. "  From  "The Pope's Astronomer" in New York Daily News, December 26, 2005, p. 33.

This sort of a deity can coexist with evil and work in subtle ways to counter it through the actions of those who would do such deeds as would be called evil.

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© Copyright Philip A. Pecorino 2001. All Rights reserved.   Web Surfer's Caveat: These are class notes, intended to comment on readings and amplify class discussion. They should be read as such. They are not intended for publication or general distribution.

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