The Creative Suffering of the Triune God

The Creative Suffering of the Triune God: An Evolutionary Theology

Gloria L.Schaab uses the results of Arthur R. Peacocke's theology to develop a view of divine suffering from an evolutionary perspective that supposedly is more defensible than those proposed by traditional Christian theodicies.

Ángel Manuel Rodríguez, Th.D., is the director of the Biblical Research Institute of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, Silver Spring, Maryland, United States.

This book, an exposition and evaluation of the merging of Christian theology and evolutionary thinking, was proposed by Arthur R. Peacocke (1924–2006), an Anglican canon with doctoral degrees in science and divinity. Gloria L. Schaab does more than summarize Peacocke’s views. She uses the results of his theology to develop a view of divine suffering from an evolutionary perspective that supposedly is more defensible than those proposed by traditional Christian theodicies. She adds very little to what Peacocke had written.

Schaab, following Peacocke, begins with the assumption that evolution a fact and that Christian theologians should incorporate in the formulation of Christian doctrine and theology. They both reject classical Christian theism with its emphasis on the immutability and impassability of God, as well as any attempt to restrict the formulation of doctrine and theology to the content of Scripture. They also assume that quantum theories provide a basis from which one could begin to formulate an evolutionary theology. Natural theology is at the very core of their proposal (i.e., the entities, processes, and structures of creation reveal the nature and attributes of God). Since classical Christian theism is unable to coexist harmoniously with natural evolution, they look for a different model of God. They, together with other Christian theologians, find in panentheism what they need. Panentheism “denotes that the Being of God includes and penetrates the whole universe—a universe pervaded by pain, suffering, and death—but is not exhausted by the universe itself” (p. 9). That is to say, the universe is not God, but the universe is in God. They also assume that God is the Creator and that by looking at nature we can apprehend the processes of creation.

For Peacocke and Schaab, the study of evolutionary cosmology, biology, and quantum physics reveals the inherent unpredictability of the cosmos. There seems to be an intrinsic indeterminacy and unpredictability at the microlevel of the cosmos. There we find, they argue, the operation of chance and randomness as the cosmos creates itself. Randomness, unpredictability, and chance are at the center of natural evolution. Nature tells us how God creates. He does not intervene in the evolutionary process because it takes place within His own being.

What kind of God does the evolutionary process reveal? First, they argue, it reveals an immanent God. He is present in the cosmos in a unique way, in that it exists within Himself. But since the cosmos cannot be equated with God, He is also the transcendental God. By allowing for randomness and chance to be the vehicles of creation, it is implied that God imposed limits on His omnipotence and omniscience. This made possible the creation of an autonomous, free, and unpredictable cosmos. Peacocke and Schaab argue that such self-limitation reveals God’s self-sacrificing love. This God is a Triune God in that He is active in (Father), within (Son), and under (Spirit) the entities, structures, and processes of the cosmos. Since the process of evolution has resulted in human personhood, they suggest, one must conclude that God is personal, suprapersonal, or transpersonal—not a person.

The cosmic realities of pain, death, and suffering are the agencies of natural evolution and they occur within God and have an impact on Him. He suffers in, within, and under the self-creating process of nature. Both are becoming. But the process brings out of death, pain, and suffering new emergent forms of life. They argue that this is similar to the experience of Jesus who, out of His death, brought into existence a new form of life. The idea that God directly involves Himself in suffering is supposedly pastorally encouraging, in that this depicts Him as not only familiar with our experience but, in fact, participates in it. It also speaks to female concerns in that God creates through birthing. The cosmos self-creates within Him. This experience of constant cosmic pain was aggravated by the suffering introduced into the cosmos by intelligent creatures unwilling to cooperate with the creative process of evolution. Each member of the Trinity suffers in their own particular way as Father, Son, and Spirit. Schaab talks briefly and vaguely about a future in which weeping and suffering will come to an end in a new creation.

We should ask several questions. The first one is about method. Is it sound to define Christian doctrines by merging the results of scientific evolutionary research with scriptural materials? Theologians and scientists have not been able to agree on the proper way to combine them. In fact, the attempted combinations are characterized by a significant amount of speculations on the part of scientists and theologians. This suggests that we should not take any combination as final (Peacocke and Schaab acknowledge this). But it could also suggest that this approach leads to a dead end and, therefore, is unreliable. Besides, the model proposed in this book requires a panentheistic understanding of God, not drawn from the biblical materials but from philosophical speculation about the Divine Being.

What comfort can suffering human beings obtain by knowing that their God suffers as a result of the randomness and unpredictability of the process of evolution? If the universe is self-creating within God, then He has no control over what takes place within Himself; He allows things to develop as they please. In that case, the suffering introduced by self-conscious, intelligent beings is an intrinsic part of the megadrama of evolutionary development and is justifiable, and, in fact, indispensable. In a sense, it could be argued that since God has limited His omnipotence, He and humans are victims of evolutionary pain and suffering. The model does not provide a valid pastoral dimension to assist suffering humanity. Even the female model seems to be out of place. The female procreative process is not a state of chaos but a process of order and beauty. The presence of evil does not always allow for that beauty and order to be visible, but is fundamentally structured for goodness. In the case of panentheism, what we find inside God’s being is chaos, disorder, and death. Birthing perpetuates them.

Finally, does evolutionary theology anticipate the ending of pain and suffering? Peacocke and Schaab have rejected any form of Christian eschatology as a solution to that problem. But when she says, “The birth of the cosmos in its fullness is an eschatological event to be completed only in the new creation in which all weeping and suffering and death will be no more” (p. 172), she has introduced some type of Christian eschatology into the discussion as well as divine intervention. How does she know that such a new creation will take place if God Himself does not know it (He limited His omniscience)? If what she argues is true, we would have to conclude that according to evolutionary theology the self-creating activity of the cosmos will come to an end. Generally, scientists argue that the evolutionary process is open-ended and lacks a particular telos. They do not anticipate an end except in the form of a deep freeze—the uncontrolled expansion of the universe, or in a self-destructive inferno—the reversal of the big bang. In either case, death would have won. A theology of natural evolution is practically an oxymoron.

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Ángel Manuel Rodríguez, Th.D., is the director of the Biblical Research Institute of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, Silver Spring, Maryland, United States.

July 2009

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