Creation and omnipotence: a process perspective

As a follow-up of sorts to my reading of Christopher Southgate’s The Groaning of Creation, I picked up Jay McDaniel’s Of God and Pelicans: A Theology of Reverence for Life, which Southgate refers to a number of times in his book.

McDaniel is a process theologian who has also been influenced by feminist theology, as well as Zen Buddhism. His goal is to develop–as the subtitle suggests–a “biocentric” theology and ethic for what he calls a “postpatriarchal” Christianity.

Like Southgate, one of the issues that concerns McDaniel is the problem of animal suffering. However, McDaniel goes further in revising the concept of God than Southgate would. Along with several other process theologians, McDaniel questions the traditional notion of creation ex nihilo (or creation out of nothing).

Instead McDaniel suggests that, alongside God, there existed at the time of creation a “primordial chaos” out of which God forms patterns of order and complexity, ultimately giving rise to the world as we know it. The chaos has its own internal principle of energy and spontaneity, which also sets limits to what God can do in creating the world.

…for [process theologians], God did not create the world out of nothing. Rather he–or, better, she–created the world out of a chaos of energy events present at the beginning of our cosmic epoch. […] At that stage the chaos was within her as part of her body, and while it was devoid of order and novelty, it was nevertheless possessive of its own ability to actualize possibilities, its own creativity. By availing the chaos of possibilities for order and novelty, god gave birth to the universe within herself, and the birth process continues. (p. 36)*

Thus the world should be seen as at least partly independent of God and outside of strict divine control. Indeed, God’s power is conceived by McDaniel not as determining events unilaterally but as presenting possibilities that are creatively actualized (or not) by finite beings. Drawing on quantum theory he contends that, even at the subatomic level, “pulses of energy” may go in more than one possible direction and are not strictly predictable or determined. And as matter becomes more complex, and eventually gives rise to living beings, this principle of creativity and unpredictability becomes ever more pronounced.

This explains, according to McDaniel, why the creation proceeds along paths that seem inimical to the will of an all-loving God. God can creatively respond to what happens in creation and try to “lure” it along more life-giving paths, but cannot strictly determine what happens. Hence creation tends toward ever more complex forms of life, but also contains a great deal of apparently pointless suffering.

McDaniel argues that, even though it departs from tradition, his approach is justified because it takes God’s love, rather than power, as its starting point. While much traditional theology has understood God’s power as the ability to unilaterally determine events, many have had trouble reconciling this kind of power with the love that Christians attribute to God. If God is love, does it make sense to attribute a unilateral determining power to him, or do our notions of power need to be re-thought in light of the kind of self-giving love we see in Jesus?

More thoughts on this in the next post…
*McDaniel writes, “I use the feminine pronoun purposefully, though I do not mean to imply that masculine language cannot also be helpful. Within contemporary Christian communities, different images can and should be used to indicate the all-loving God of Christian faith, female as well as male” (p. 36).

3 thoughts on “Creation and omnipotence: a process perspective

  1. This conception of God that limits his power both wrt human action and wrt the behavior of the whole creation certainly comports better both with evil and with the biblical mythology than traditional theism.

    But a God who is neither eternal nor omnipotent nor omniscient it is not what any of the traditional arguments for the existence of God lead to.

    That’s a problem if you find those arguments persuasive.

    And, if you don’t, why believe in God at all?

  2. Pingback: More thoughts on omnipotence and creation « A Thinking Reed

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