Process theology and a less than omnipotent God

Process theology and a less than omnipotent God.

There are a lot of synonyms for God, particularly in the Old Testament as Christians call it.  One of the more frequent is God Almighty (El Shaddai).  But strange things happen as ancient words are translated, and the term El Shaddai is just as readily translated as “God of the strong breasts.”  This comes from the term shadayim, which means a pair of breasts in Hebrew.  Shad means breasts and ai-im signifies a dual noun.  The idea seems to be that God is fertile and giving (

Most images of God, including God Almighty, signify God’s strength, power, and magnificence.  God is too frequently modeled on the ideal of the ancient tyrant (Hartshorne 1984, p 11).  A God of breasts hardly fits with this model, which is why this translation is generally ignored. 

Process theology argues that God is strong, but not strong enough to overcome the will of humans, or to overcome the past.  God lures us to the best choice, meaning most in keeping with our self-development as persons. But God does not compel.  Not because he chooses to give us our freedom, but because he lacks the ability to compel.  Instead, God is “the great companion—the fellow-suffer who understands.” (Whitehead, p 351)

Charles Hartshorne, who along with Alfred North Whitehead is the founder of process theology, argues that “with infinite subtlety and appropriate sensitivity, God rejoices in all our joys and sorrows in all our sorrows.” (Hartshorne 1948, p 54)

I will summarize process theology as best I can.  Then I will list objections.  I agree with these objections, while finding much in process theology that remains attractive.    

Heresy or freedom?

Process theology is more radical than first appears.  Both Judaism and Christianity hold that God is eternal, unchanging, and impassable.  That is, God does not feel pleasure or pain from the acts of others, including humans.  Process theology rejects all three claims.  For process theists, God is involved in the world.  “God is the supreme Receiver, gathering together in His consciousness all that creatures do and responding appropriately to it.” What we do changes God.

This claim is made by W. Norris Clarke, a Jesuit philosopher, who argues that “God’s consciousness is contingently and qualitatively different because of what we do.” (pp 92-93)  From this perspective, we might say that we are all held in the mind of God because we are in God.  The power he exercises over us is persuasive power, the power to order the world so that we are faced with alternatives.  Without God, nothing new would ever enter the world, which would be governed by entropy and materialism.  Everything would be caused, and nothing new could enter this closed system.

God opens the world and confronts us with choices.  Some choices will make us better human beings, which for process theologians means we will have come closer to being the best we possibly can. God tries to make these choices more attractive, but the cost is often dear, as we must abandon ways of life to which we have become accustomed.

A weak God or a caring one?

Some reject process theology because God is no longer omnipotent.  God remembers us; everyone who ever lived has a place in God’s mind.  In this respect alone humans are immortal. God also frees us.  But God cannot make humans choose wisely, he cannot overcome natural forces, such as a tornado, and God can only present us with the choices that history has made possible.  God can’t change the past, or the limits the past sets on the future. 

God did not create the universe ex nihilo, but ex materia.  That is, he created the universe from material already present in chaotic form, matter that resists God’s will.  This account is entirely compatible with the first sentence of the Bible as rendered in Greek (Septuagint), the only ancient language I understand.  En arche epoiesen ho Theos.  “In the beginning God made . . . .  Epoiesen just as readily applies to something made from raw materials as it does something out of nothing.  Indeed, the former sense is its usual sense in ancient Greek, for it is an ordinary word.  Ex nihilo is a theological doctrine, not a Biblical one.  Compare the creation account in Job 38: 1-40, where God must overcome terrible forces to create the world. 

The problem of evil         

God orders chaos, creating the past, present, and future.  But even God does not know the future, for while God exists forever, he exists in time, not outside of it.  A great advantage of this view is that it overcomes the problem of evil.  The problem of evil is this: if God is all powerful, all knowing, and all good, why would he allow the suffering of innocents?  Why would he allow Hitler to be born? 

The usual answer is that God has chosen to give us our freedom, and with it comes all sorts of terrible things.  We should value our freedom, but must the cost be so horrifically high?  If God is omnipotent, could he not occasionally intervene? 

Process theology has a simpler answer.  God lacks the power to intervene; he doesn’t because he really can’t.  “God is the divine Eros urging the world to new heights of enjoyment.” (Cobb and Griffin, p 26)  Enjoyment is Whitehead’s term for self-fulfillment, as measured by God, not man.  Some will reject this option.  That too is their freedom.    

The most common argument against the process theological answer to the problem of evil is that a God without omnipotence is a God too small to worship.  David Griffin is a process theologian.  About his God, David Roth says

A God of such weakness, no matter how much he suffers, is rather pathetic.  Good though he may be, Griffin’s God is too small.  He inspires little awe, little sense of holiness. (p 121)

Christians, particularly, should be receptive to process theology, for Christ is an ideal example, his strength made perfect in weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9).  Jesus does not overcome the world; he weeps for it.  “Jesus wept” is the shortest, and perhaps the most important sentence in the Bible (John 11:35). 

The gospels remain good news (εὐαγγέλιον).  Emmanuel—God is with us and for us totally (Matthew 1:23).  He weeps for us, and shares our joy.  We are in God (remembered by God) forever.   

Criticisms of process theology 

Among the most powerful criticisms is that process theology eliminates the mystery of God.  We now know who God is, what he wants, and what he wills.  In my way of thinking religion is still built on the “leap to faith,” which includes the inexplicable.   Whitehead says that he introduced God to solve a metaphysical problem.   If all is process and change, what holds everything together, what prevents the triumph of entropy, and what allows for the introduction of novelty and newness?  The answer is God, who creates by setting limits, for example between past, present, and future (Cobb and Griffin, pp 42-43).  

Trouble is, in practice process theology often proceeds by asking, in effect, “how do I want God to be?” To be sure, humans always create the God they subsequently discover.  Nevertheless, the Bible sets constraints, and process theology ignores those constraints it doesn’t like, such as when God acts like a capricious tyrant, destroying the innocent and guilty alike (Exodus 23:23).  It is good to remember that we are the created, not the creators.

Another problem is the claim that God “lures” us to the best choice.  Perhaps he does, but the concept of lure is underdeveloped.  The claim that “God is the divine Eros urging the world to new heights of enjoyment” is unclear, even if we understand enjoyment as the fullest development of human potential (Cobb and Griffin, p 26).  Does he lure us by knowing what each of us likes, or does he lure by constraining the choices open to us?  I suspect the latter, but process theology is inventing God as it goes along. 

Since ancient times redactors of the Bible have done this, as when God restores Job’s fortunes at the end of his trials (42:7-16).  Most scholars believe that the prose conclusion of Job is an addition by later editors, designed to render God less mysterious and more benign.  While process theology isn’t the first to create the God it wants to find, sometimes it seems overly eager to do so.    


Most people encounter process theology, when they do (it is not widely known), as a solution to the problem of evil.  More interesting to me is the idea that God need not be all powerful in order to be God.  A God who orders the world, remembers the suffering and joy of each of us, sharing both, while luring (but not  compelling) us to make the best choices, is powerful enough for me.  It also reminds us to separate goodness and power, something that many people have great difficulty in doing.


W. Norris Clarke, The Philosophical Approach to God: A Neo-Thomist Perspective. Wake Forest University Press, 1979.

John B. Cobb and David Ray Griffin, Process Theology.   Westminster John Knox Press, 1976.

Charles Hartshorne, The Divine Relativity: A Social Conception of God.  Yale University Press 1948

Charles Hartshorne,  Omnipotence and Other Theological Mistakes.  State University of New York Press, 1984

David Roth, Critique of Griffin, in Encountering Evil: Live Options in Theodicy, edited by Stephen T. Davis.  John Knox Press, 1981, 119-123.

Alfred North Whitehead,   Process and Reality: An Essay in Cosmology, edited by David Ray Griffin and Donald W. Sherburne.  The Free Press, 1978 [original 1929]. 


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