Somewhere along the way I started calling Tom Oord “TJ” to distinguish him from myself in online discussions we were having. So I’ll just stick with that for now. I’ve had it in mind to post why – given TJ’s own Process (or quasi-Process) metaphysics – his preference for God being, necessarily, the creator of an infinite series of worlds, each created out of the previous, rather than a single world, in fact reduces to a single world and that any advantages TJ might think his series of worlds has over a single world disappear upon closer examination, and that in terms of his own assumptions.
But that post will have to wait. Instead, I’d like here to add a reflection or two to the ongoing conversation between Tom Oord and John Sanders. Recently, Sanders posted a response to Oord’s overall project, and today Oord published a response. The point I’d like to add is simple: Given the constraints of the Process metaphysics at work in TJ’s work, on his own terms he’s far from having solved the problem of evil. If you’re unfamiliar with Oord’s work, or Process theism in general, he reviews the essentials of his approach in his response to Sanders.
I like initially to see if a person’s proposal is consistent with its own fundamental assumptions. And without introducing my own beliefs about God or evil or the world into the mix, it seems to me that Oord’s proposal is unimaginable on its own terms. Even if TJ is right that God doesn’t exhaustively control/coerce any created entity (be it the simplest “actual occasion” or a complex “society of occasions” – and, for the record, such less-than-exhaustive determination of things is a claim I tend to agree with in an important sense), one can still make a case that the problem of evil remains. If God can exercise a level of influence great enough (near total but not exhaustive – and TJ grants that divine influence may be very great indeed) to get a miracle as historically unique as the resurrection of a dead person, and achieve it on the predicted day of his choosing, then we’re talking about a kind of relating (even if not ‘exhaustively determining’) that essentially reintroduces the problem of evil – even for Oord. A divine way of relating to the world capable of achieving physical resurrection would, arguably, be able to prevent a great deal more of the evil that occurs in the world that it does, even if it wouldn’t reasonably prevent every evil.
Let’s grant TJ the kind of non-exhaustive coercion/influence that is a chief claim of his project. Even so, if God can effectively relate (kenotically, i.e., less than exhaustively determinative) to dead cells and raise them on cue, it’s easy to see how the problem of evil essentially remains. Why isn’t a God whose way of relating to the world includes achieving resurrection more successful generally? True, how much God is able to achieve in any given circumstance depends upon the level of cooperation from created entities. But this doesn’t get us much because it doesn’t prevent us from concluding in general that a world in which God can resurrect the dead would certainly be vastly better than ours is.
TJ supposes that Jesus’ spirit/soul cooperated with God in re-animating the cells of Jesus’ dead body. I’m not sure what sort of reality Oord supposes this ‘spirit’ to be. He describes it a bit. But it’s certainly not convertible with a conscious, functioning brain in the dead Jesus. Some other sort of volitional influence, distinguishable from a functioning brain, seems to be in view. But positing a level of influence on the part of Jesus’ spirit doesn’t solve the problem in TJ’s terms because the “dead cells” of Jesus’ body (apart from all other influences – divine or those attributable to Jesus’ own spirit) must contribute their own freely self-determined surrender to the possibility of resurrection. Is that imaginable within Process metaphysics broadly construed? I think not.
Consider the Process metaphysics at work. All “actual occasions” retain some inviolable measure of self-determining/self-organizational capacity. Outcomes are always cooperatively achieved in light of God’s “subjective aims” for entities and the free exercise of the creative capacities of those entities. That is, actual occasions are free to self-determine within a scope of possibilities provided by God’s subjective aim for that entity’s ideal state of becoming. So far so good. However, those subjective aims are also relative to that entity’s present state. Salt can dissolve in water. Water can freeze in sufficient cold. Salt isn’t going to produce a rose bush as its next creative step of becoming. Why not? Because the complexity of a rose bush lies outside the scope of the possibilities that define salt. Will Process metaphysics allow us to suppose that “dead cells” have it within their natural capacities as societies of actual occasions (i.e., “as dead cells”) to reanimate themselves into a conscious state? Supposing they do involves a leap of faith that resurrects the problem of evil along with Jesus.
Why do I say this? Because in Process terms, a dead body is a complex system of actual occasions incapable of the kind of free cooperation Oord needs them to be in order for those dead cells to play their Process part in becoming a conscious subject. I don’t confess to being an expert in Process metaphysics (Hasker, Rice, Greg Boyd, and others can confirm my point), but Hartshorne, I believe, showed that some outcomes (say, conscious, self-aware, rational subjects) require higher forms of consciousness to begin with. The higher, more beautiful, more complex events we call conscious subjectivity and aesthetic perception, require sufficient complexity as their immediately antecedent data. No mysterious quantum leaps allowed! A rock cannot perform calculus. Why not? Because its present reality “as a rock” isn’t sufficiently complex enough a state of awareness to begin with. A non-conscious, non-rational, society of occasions (say, a dead body) does not enjoy the same scope of possibilities as does a conscious, rational, subjectivity. Oord is asking Process metaphysics to support the claim that dead cells in themselves are sufficiently complex a state as to be capable of cooperating with God’s subjective aim for its reanimation.
This seems too much to ask of Process metaphysics. Per Process, the “divine subjective aims” offer possibilities that lie within the capacities of given actualities (all other divine contributions aside). That’s hardly imaginable in the case of dead cells, even if we view those cells in Process terms as a society of actual occasions which on a fundamental quantum level of existence still contribute something to their possibilities of becoming in the next nanosecond. The metaphysics doesn’t get you the kind of event we have in Jesus rising from the dead.
I appreciate that it may solve the problem of evil for Oord or for those disposed to Process cosmologies who are already theists convinced on other grounds that God is the Good, the Beautiful, the True. But it seems incredible to others. In particular, it seems incredible to imagine an that atheist who thought seriously about Oord’s proposal, who appreciated the problem of evil in its most acute forms, and who understood the inherent limitations of the Process metaphysics at work in Oord’s project (whatever its advantages), would feel the problem of evil was “solved” by the supposed good news that God raised Jesus’ dead body miraculously but couldn’t stop (to go with an example Oord frames his model around) a stray rock from striking a woman’s head and killing her because the “cells” of Jesus’ dead body cooperated with God’s subjective aims for them while the “molecules” of the rock didn’t cooperate with God’s subjective aims for them. This is where Sanders is spot on in his criticism of Oord – to the extent Oord succeeds at articulating a view of God’s relationship to the world that has room for “miracles,” it fails to solve the problem of evil.