General observation: The problem of evil is often presented as a theoretical problem (whether “logical” or “evidential”) for theists (those who affirm the reality of God). But there is a theoretical problem of evil only where there is a consensus on exactly what the following terms can mean: “God,” “creation,” “power,” “perfection,” “causation,” “freedom,” “good,” “evil.” And yet even a superficial examination of how these terms have actually been used over the centuries, both popularly and academically, shows that no exact consensus has ever existed. There is actually a lot of “wiggle room” among overlapping clusters of meaning, as there is with most widely used terms. They can’t mean just anything if people hope to communicate, but none of them reduces to one exact meaning. For some reason, this evident fact is rarely taken seriously, especially by analytic philosophers of religion. (If alternative meanings are mentioned at all, they are usually caricatured and then dismissed.) What I am calling the shared creativity response to the problem of evil is one version, shared by many theologians, of what can happen when we do take overlapping clusters of meaning seriously, starting from a more experientially grounded understanding of “creation.” David Hume’s fans and some Christians will respond that I’m no longer talking about what they mean by “God.” I do think of God in different terms and with different assumptions from theirs. But theirs are not the only terms or assumptions available to us, and there are ancient precedents in scripture and tradition for the alternative terms and assumptions that I and others in my school of thought propose.
Hume’s Trilemma: “Is [God] willing to prevent evil, but not able? then is he impotent. Is he able, but not willing? then is he malevolent. Is he both able and willing? whence then is evil?”—David Hume, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, 1779. (J. L. Mackie’s restatement: “God is omnipotent; God is wholly good; and yet evil exists. There seems to be some contradiction between these three propositions, so that if any two of them were true the third would be false. But at the same time all three are essential parts of most theological positions: the theologian, it seems, at once must adhere and cannot consistently adhere to all three.”)
As a critique of popular assumptions about God and about God’s power, I think Hume’s and Mackie’s arguments are pretty damning. The same goes for what Mackie calls half-hearted attempts to rethink those assumptions. This response is an attempt to rethink our assumptions consistently, not half-heartedly.
Response (briefly): conflict, suffering, and evil happen, not because of God’s “impotence” (or “wimpiness”) and not because of God’s “malevolence,” but because of a) what creation essentially is (shared creativity), because of b) what and who God essentially is (the uniquely unsurpassable version of shared creativity), and because of c) what any God-created world essentially is (a surpassable multitude of lesser versions of shared creativity).
(This is a version of process theism or open and relational theism or a “dialogical” panentheism, as many will recognize.)
Main idea: Creation is happening everywhere and is always and essentially co-creativity, shared creativity, the happening of “novel togetherness”—Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality (New York: Free Press, 1978 ), p. 21. (Genuine novelty, furthermore, is an occurrence of what had never been beforehand—it’s “sort of” ex nihilo, i.e., “out of nothing.”) Everything that follows is pretty much unpacking this main idea, so this is the idea that should be challenged if anybody disagrees. I find it supported by every experience I’ve ever had, but that’s me.
With creation thus understood, then even if we try to imagine God without any sort of world (something the biblical writers never even tried to do), God’s creativity would still be shared creativity. But this is in fact what the Nicene Creed’s doctrine of the Trinity invites us to imagine—God (the “Father”) creatively shares “God-from-God” (the “Son”) with God (the “Holy Spirit”). (Here’s a sermon for GraceUnlimited that addresses the Trinity, shared creativity, evil, and renewal all at once.)
With creation thus understood, God’s creating a world (whatever isn’t God) is God’s unforced sharing of creativity by summoning a multitude of lesser versions of creativity into being. (Lesser versions include everything from quarks to humans to galaxies to the entire universe, or else the multiverse—anything nondivine, of any magnitude.)
This is in fact how most current biblical scholars read the symbolism of Genesis 1: “‘let there be’ leaves room for creaturely response (vv. 11, 24); … ‘let us make’ leaves room for consultation (v. 26); … ‘let them have dominion’ (v. 26) entails a sharing of power. God’s way of speaking creation communicates with others, makes room for others, with the attendant risks … The earth itself assists importantly in creative activity … Both human and nonhuman creatures are called to participate in the creative activity made possible by God”—Joseph Blenkinsopp, “Genesis” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. 1, ed. by Leander E. Keck, et al. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994), p. 343. In other words: “Genesis 1 uses the terms of an ancient worldview to say symbolically that from the very beginning, without literally having vocal chords, God was in some sort of communication with a vast, dark, shapeless, fluid mess, summoning it to become a luminous, shapely, creative community. God ‘spoke’ to the chaos creatively, the chaos responded creatively, and that’s how we got this intricately interwoven community we call the world, with all its appealing and devastating surprises.”
Versions of shared creativity are influenced by other versions (they’re shared), but never controlled—controlled creativity is a contradiction in terms; it’s uncontrollable by definition. (This radically reframes the entire “free will vs. determinism” debate in ways that Mackie does not consider.)
A multitude of uncontrolled, lesser versions of shared creativity is bound to produce conflict, because, as lesser, they are unable to envision all of their creativity’s possible effects on others. While not logically necessary, conflict is practically inevitable.
But more inclusive and cooperative versions of shared creativity emerge from the inevitable clashes of these uncontrollable and unpredictable interactions—shared creativity actually requires something like natural selection: “The very nature of things displays a mutually selective process, often devastating, yet issuing in unpredictable forms of community.”
Among animals, especially the human animal, this inevitable conflict is experienced as suffering and evil. And human evil, or sin, has further complex dynamics, like self-deception, that are difficult to describe without paradox (to deceive yourself, you have to be both aware that you are lying, and unaware that you are lying, at the same time!—see, e.g., Reinhold Niebuhr, The Nature and Destiny of Man [New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1941], p. 204.)
While conflict, suffering, and evil are not preventable, they are all being drawn toward reconciliation (Colossians 1:20) in God’s unsurpassable, all-inclusively shared creativity, now and always. God is both willing and able to draw good from unpreventable evil repeatedly, and not from a safe distance. God does this precisely while intimately undergoing all the pain, devastation, even Godforsakennes that we and countless others undergo—from a Christian perspective shared creativity is essentially cruciform (Matthew 27:46; Philippians 2:5-13).
A technical theological term for this, as Brent Hege notes, is “theopaschism” (theo—God; pascho—suffer), and some have suggested this ancient “heresy” has become the new “orthodoxy” among today’s theologians.
Of course, if all creation is co-creativity, shared creativity, then we will have to reframe the meaning of words like “omnipotence,” consistently, or else try out new terminology.
For example, while I regard God’s power as unsurpassable, what St. Anselm would call the power “than which a greater cannot be thought,” I prefer to speak of this power as uniquely all-enlivening (or all-empowering), all-sustaining, and all-embracing (or all-including). You could call that a version of omnipotence, but it’s not all-controlling power, which is how most people understand that word.
Here are three examples of reframing omnipotence: 1) Paul Tillich somewhat cryptically defines omnipotence “as the power of being which resists nonbeing in all its expressions and which is manifest in the creative process in all its forms”—Systematic Theology, vol. 1, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951), p. 273. 2) The Catechism of the Catholic Church refuses a one-sentence definition, carefully (and yes, a bit paradoxically) qualifying God’s omnipotence as never arbitrary but as universal, loving power mysteriously perfected in the weakness of Christ’s crucifixion and exaltation, intentionally leaving room for a diverse range of interpretation. 3) My commentary on the Nicene Creed reframes God’s “almighty” power as “the inescapably present power beyond and before all other powers, … ultimately surrounding and enlivening us, our trusting, and everything else, [which] is ultimately one and, most importantly, ultimately providing, like a parent.” (This actually reflects some of the earliest readings of the original Greek word for “almighty”—pantokrator. It can mean “ruler of all,” but it also means “holder of all”: “God is called pantokrator because he himself holds and embraces all things”—Theophilus of Antioch, ?- c. 183, Ad Autolycum 1,4. The Latin translation, omnipotentem, is thus a bit misleading.)
These reframed accounts can all be read, I believe, in terms of the shared creativity response, but again, they’re very different from what most people assume when they think of omnipotence. So I usually prefer to use a different cluster of “omnis” to speak of the unsurpassable power that is uniquely God’s, and to follow through on this consistently, not half-heartedly.
In some ways this response resembles the so-called “free-will defense,” but there are very crucial differences. 1) “Free will” applies typically to human or human-like creatures; shared creativity applies to anything and everything—quarks, organisms, ecosystems, galaxies, etc. 2) The free-will defense argues that a world with the freedom to do evil is better than a world without it. The shared creativity response argues that there’s no room even to ask if a world of shared creativity is better than a world without it. That’s because, with this understanding of creation, a God-created “world” without shared creativity is no world at all but a contradiction in terms. It’s like asking if a round circle is better than a square circle. You can’t ask if it would be better or worse, because it can’t even be thought about, not even hypothetically, to be evaluated. You can’t ask if the juice is worth the squeeze, because there is no alternative to “the squeeze,” at least not eventually. 3) The free-will defense still clings to the idea that God “permits” the existence of evil. In the shared creativity response, the existence of evil, or conflict, is not “permitted” by God or any one agency—it results, not with logical necessity, but with practical inevitability, from an uncontrollable multitude of lesser versions of shared creativity.
While God’s sharing of creativity with whatever isn’t God is regarded as unforced, this does not mean that God at some point “decided” to do this. (Genesis 1 does not imply that either—the Bible, as I’ve said, never describes what God was doing or deciding before the world started happening.) Instead of thinking in terms of deciding vs. being forced, why not think of sharing creativity in terms of love? When we love others, we don’t “decide” to love them (we can decide to act lovingly, but that’s different), but nothing else forces us to love. It’s neither forced nor automatic, but never arbitrary. This is how one highly influential ancient Christian writer suggested it: “The very cause of the universe in the beautiful, good superabundance of his benign yearning for all, is also carried outside himself in the loving care he has for everything. He is, as it were, beguiled by goodness, by love”—Pseudo-Dionysius, The Divine Names, 712A-B. It’s the nature of love to be drawn beyond itself, not forcibly, not automatically, but not arbitrarily either.
If we understand creation, God, and the world in terms of shared creativity, we no longer ask questions like, “Why did God make this happen?” or “Why did God let this happen?” Instead, we respond first in solidarity and empathy, without offering a “cost/benefit analysis” for particular evils, and only then do we ask, haltingly, “What might God be doing with this, and how can we be a part of it?” And in general, halting terms we can at least imagine an answer to that question—the cruciform God who intimately undergoes suffering with us is sharing creative ways toward reconciliation, and whether or to what extent that actually happens depends at least partly on our own and others’ shared creativity. (This also sheds light on how prayer can be involved here.)
Thus the problem of evil is no longer a theoretical problem but a practical one summoning us to empathy and action, opening us, again in Tillich’s terms, to “the power of being which resists nonbeing in all its expressions,” allowing us still to affirm, somewhat defiantly, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:5).
Addendum: What About Those Miracles in the Bible? Others will point out that this account of shared creativity does not seem to fit biblical portrayals of God doing stupendous things like sending plagues, parting the Red Sea, making the sun stand still (or the earth stop rotating), stopping storms instantaneously, reanimating corpses, etc. Those all look pretty controlling. (Thomas J. Oord argues that God still could have pulled off such events “noncontrollingly,” with the cooperation of creatures. But that requires an equally stupendous amount of creaturely cooperation—did God just get lucky sometimes? And it reintroduces questions like, Why couldn’t God do anything that stupendous about the Holocaust or today’s hurricanes or earthquakes or viruses, etc.? Were the creatures just not in as cooperative a mood? And what about the moral ambiguities involved in sending plagues and drowning hundreds of Egyptians?) But most advocates of the shared creativity response side with the majority of Mainline Protestant and Roman Catholic biblical scholars and theologians in concluding that these portrayals are all stories that were increasingly embellished before they were written in their final form. (The evidence for frequent embellishment is overwhelming, they maintain, although it can be challenged bit by bit, just as people can challenge the evidence for climate change bit by bit. Also, no biblical writer makes claims about what is considered scripture that would rule out embellishments.) In their own culture’s terms, all of the biblical writers who preserved handed-down stories like these were trying to convey their vivid experience of God responding to their condition beyond the limits of what they thought possible, and they saw these stories as noteworthy examples of this. We may conclude that these examples don’t always fit that well with their underlying conviction, but that underlying conviction does fit fairly easily with a shared creativity response. This applies even to the central Christian claim that Jesus is risen. The earliest testimony to this comes from St. Paul (1 Corinthians 15). He insisted that it really happened. It wasn’t just his private experience. But he insisted just as emphatically that it was a non-physical happening, something a camera probably couldn’t capture. He seems to have seen it as a nearly indescribable spiritual renewal of bodily existence beyond present boundaries, a “spiritual embodiment” (vv. 44-45), starting with Jesus and continuing in the lives of his gathered community. That was his underlying conviction. Later accounts in the Gospels share this conviction but make resurrection look more physical, while still difficult to picture, in order to insist that this was not just a subjective attitude toward the life of Jesus. All of this is pretty non-controversial among most professional biblical scholars (most of whom are practicing Jews and Christians). I admit that this will not satisfy some evangelicals, and it will also irritate some atheists, but it nevertheless represents at least one “mainstream” expression of Christianity. And in fact, my reading the Bible through the lens of shared creativity over the past 40+ years is a major part of why the Bible still vividly speaks to me.