Ask Dr. Cobb

August 2009 Question

"Where is God and where is God not in war according to your panentheistic doctrine of God?"

Dr. Cobb's Response

Process theologians generally emphasize where God is. First, God is everywhere in two ways. God is everywhere offering possibilities for the self-constitution of events and nudging them toward better possibilities. Second, God is everywhere absorbing into the divine life all that happens in the world. This is as true in war as it is at all other times and places.
But where is God not? In terms of the second way in which God is present, the answer is nowhere. Whatever the sin and suffering, God is the companion who suffers with the creatures.

But in terms of the first form of God’s presence, we find God’s absence extensive. We do not talk as much about that, perhaps because God’s absence is so often more obvious than God’s presence. Our emphasis has been that even when it is very difficult to discern God’s presence, it is still there.

The answer that God is absent to a great deal of reality differentiates panentheism from pantheism. Pantheism sees God and world as two ways of speaking of the same reality. Whatever happens is equally the work of God or of the world. Panentheism sharply differentiates God from the world.

The questioner probably intends to exclude consideration of some functions of God. The basic order of the universe is profoundly affected when not strictly determined by God’s primordial ordering of eternal objects. Whitehead offers a version of the old idea that God is the author of “natural laws.” This is markedly qualified by the fact that much that has been thought of as natural law is better understood as the habits of nature. But underlying the emergence of the habits of nature are the physical constants. There are basic patterns of order that cannot be explained by the activity of the ordered occasions. In this important sense, God is as present in the bombing of small children or the explosion of a hydrogen bomb as in a medic’s risking his life to aid a wounded soldier.

We can remind ourselves of how each actual occasion comes into being. For the most part it comes into being as a selective synthesis of past occasions. The selection is determined by the nature and relevance of those past occasions themselves. The first phase of an occasion is called “conformal,” since it conforms to the past. In this conformation God has no direct role. Insofar as little more happens in an occasion than this conformation to the past, its explanation requires no reference to God. This is not quite true. God has been at work in the past that now shapes the present. Hence, even apart from any present activity of God, the present occasion benefits from past activity on God’s part.

In the analysis of the becoming occasion, even in the conformal phase, God is present. God is one of the actual entities to which there is conformation. God’s causal efficacy in the occasion introduces real possibilities into the occasion that are not simply derived from the actual occasions to which the occasion also conforms. Further, these possibilities are weighted so as to encourage the actualization of those that would heighten the value of the occasion.

The self-creation of the occasion takes place in the supplementary phases. In the majority of occasions, the simplest ones, this is little more than a quite regular and predictable integration of possibilities with actualities. God’s role is important but little more noticeable than in the provision of the most general patterns of order. But in a relatively small number of occasions, especially in the occasions of animal experience, the supplementary phase is far more complex. In these the possibilities introduced by God can be integrated with the actualities offered by the world in varied ways. The occasion becomes aware of how things are in contrast with how they are not. It shapes itself toward some end. That end may actualize the possibilities toward which God has initially lured the occasion to a considerable degree, or it may allow the pressures to conform to the past world to dominate. The presence of God becomes noticeable only in the former case.

These more complex occasions are member of “living persons.” The example in which we are interested here are the occasions of human experience that serially constitute a human soul. In this series of occasions, the response of one occasion to God’s call affects the subsequent call. If in occasion after occasion, the force of habit and bodily forces dominate over the new possibilities offered by God, the range of possibility that God can offer grows smaller and smaller. The Bible talks about the hardening of the heart. Although the Bible occasionally speaks of God hardening a human heart, process theology sees this as something that we do to ourselves. We see the hardened heart as the place where God’s continuing presence is negligible. We never view such a direction as irreversible. God never gives up on anyone. But even if there is fresh openness, the consequences of the hardening will long continue and limit what is possible. Repentance, as change of direction, is always possible and can be a highly visible expression of God’s presence. But the weight of the past is never erased.

On the other hand, when a person is highly receptive to the call of God moment after moment, the range of fresh possibilities open to successive occasions grows. For example, God’s specific call typically works to widen horizons of interest and concern. When the heart is hardened, this widening does not occur. Interest and concern is limited largely to oneself. But when one is open to God’s call again and again, one begins to care genuinely and primarily for the common good. Here, too, God’s presence becomes effective and visible.

The question is about war. In some cases an innocent people are attacked by others intent on destroying them or enslaving them. Those who heroically resist may well offer us a place to see God at work in a war. But in the majority of cases, the recourse to war shows the absence of God’s effective presence on both sides.

The division of the world into “us” and “them,” the urge to display one’s physical and military prowess by defeating “them,” the exaggerated estimate of “our” abilities, and the suppression of impulses toward peace – these are all deeply seated habits in the cultural psyche out of which we routinely operate. When they determine decisions, they constitute a collective hardening of the heart against alternatives toward which God calls us.

Further, when a nation goes to war, it typically lies to its people about its virtue and about the evil of the enemy. Social pressures to accept these lies harden people against truth. They lead to dehumanizing the enemy and thus hardening hearts against the call to love. Soldiers are systematically hardened in this way so that they will kill the enemy more efficiently. It is easy to say where God is not.

But even in this context, there are many places where God is. The same propaganda that hardens us against the enemy may open us to the needs of our own neighbors and communities. To give one’s life for one’s own nation expresses caring for others beyond oneself. Common prejudices are sometimes overcome as people are thrown together in new ways. Changed circumstances can offer God opportunities that are not as readily available in other contexts.

There are other places where we can discern God’s work. Currently we can see it in the antiwar movement. We can see it among those who develop realistic proposals for ending war and building a different world. We can see it in the awakening of many people to the negative aspects of the way our society is controlled and the developing of resistance to it. I saw it beginning in World War II in the hesitation of many ministers to pray for victory. God does not cease to propose what good is possible out of the terrible evils of war.

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