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Atheism and God's Power
By Barry L. Whitney


The ancient Greek myth of Prometheus, first presented in a written version in Hesiod’s Theogony and Works and Days (6th century B.C.) [1], and later by Aeschylus in Prometheus Bound [2], has had a long and interesting history in the western world. It is by far less known but, in my view, has been more subtly influential than Sophocles’s Oedipus Rex (5th century B.C.), despite the latter’s prominence in Freudian psychoanalysis.

Aeschylus produced Prometheus Bound in Athens in 465 B.C. as part of a trilogy (now lost, except for the masterful first play and fragments of the second [3]. In brief, the Promethean play depicts the suffering of Prometheus, strapped and nailed to a rock by agents of Zeus -- punishment for stealing fire and other essentials to ensure the survival of humanity. Prometheus performed this theft in defiance of Zeus’ disdain for the human species. Zeus had previously usurped control of Olympus from his father, Uranus, who had been aided by the other gods and titans, except for Prometheus and fellow titan, Oceanus, both of whom had remained loyal to Zeus. In Aeschylus’ play, Prometheus remains on stage the entire time, an impressive, larger-than-life figure who stands bound to a rock -- alone, except for the chorus and three visitors: first, Oceanus, representing the traditional religion of the audience, as do his daughters, the chorus, all of whom seek to convince Prometheus to concede to Zeus’ demand that he reveal the secret knowledge of Zeus’ fate and to plead for Zeus’ remission of his punishment;this is followedby Io, the only human being in the play, a young woman who has been transformed by Zeus (or by Zeus’ wife Hera, perhaps) into a cow and who wanders about in a daze, the victim of being wooed and impregnated by Zeus; finally Hermes appears, sent by Zeus to threaten Prometheus into revealing the secret knowledge Zeus seeks and to dmand that Prometheus recognize Zeus’ supreme authority.

There are many interrelated and important themes embedded in the Promethean myth. My intention, however, is to focus on two of the most important: Prometheus’ rebellion against Zeus and his suffering at the hands of Zeus. Both have been influential in the post-Medieval ‘modern’ world with respect to the growing rejection of church (and political) authority and in the consequent rise of atheism. More subtly perhaps, these Promethean themes have been one of the bases also for the renewed and hotly debated discussions of ‘theodicy’ [4] in which sceptical opponents challenge traditional theism as rendering genuine freedom meaningless -- despite theists’ protests to the contrary -- since human freedom seems inconsistent with the traditional conception of God who alone -- again, despite protests by theological defenders of traditional theism to the contrary -- is, like Zeus, responsible for causing or permitting evil and suffering.

Survival, Defiance, and The Fall

Before discussing these themes in detail, it is appropriate to note some of the related themes in order to glean something of their contributions to the main themes that occupy us here. Hesiod (and Aesop, in his Fables [5], both 6th century B.C.), for example, emphasized the familiar theme of Prometheus as creator, a theme which likely was popular among the general populace in ancient Greece. Hesiod’s Theogony describes Prometheus’ creative act of molding humankind from clay and instilling in this creation the breath of the goddess Athene. Hesiod describes Prometheus also as the friend of humankind, bringing to us the gift of fire which symbolizes the very basis of human society and civilization. The story in Hesiod tells us that Prometheus had deceived Zeus by offering him an insulting apportionment of a sacrificed oxen, to which Zeus had responded by punishing him: Prometheus was ‘bound by Zeus / In cruel chains, unbreakable, chained round / A pillar, and Zeus roused and set on him / An eagle with long wings, which came and ate / His deathless liver’ [6]. After an intolerably long period of suffering, Hercules is to come to kill the eagle and free Prometheus. Zeus further punishes humanity by having Hephasitos (symbolizing Fire) create Pandora, whose infamous box unleashed a host of sufferings and ills.

In the skillful hands of the master Athenian playwright, Aeschylus, the figure of Prometheus is given a far more extended development, including an intriguing esoteric layer of meaning in which the actors become metaphors for the soul’s transmigration through the physical, intellectual, and spiritual worlds – a view which represents the forbidden knowledge taught to initiates in the Eleusinian mystery cult of which Aeschylus most likely was a member [7]. The brothers of Prometheus described in Hesiod’s version -- Atlas, Menoitios, and Epimetheus -- have no role in Aeschylus’ tragedy, nor does the Pandora story which Aeschylus likely perceived as trivial misogyny, unworthy of high drama.

Among other themes in Aeschylus’ version is his emphasis, as in Hesiod, on Prometheus’ role as the empathetic, philanthropic benefactor of humanity, having stolen fire from the Olympian gods and bestowed it and other essential gifts upon human beings. Yet, the motive for this theft is not the same in Aeschylus as in Hesiod: for the latter, Prometheus himself was implicated in (and perhaps the occasion for) Zeus’ displeasure with humanity, while for Aeschylus, Zeus’ hatred for mortal humanity clearly preceded Prometheus’s defiant act. Indeed, for Aeschylus, Zeus is far more obdurate and antagonistic toward human beings than is the Zeus in Hesiod and Aesop.

In Aeschylus, moreover, Prometheus is not only humanity’s benefactor, but a heroic and defiant rebel who stood resolutely and bravely alone against Zeus’ callous use of his newly-acquired divine authority. Prometheus becomes a larger-than-life symbol of nobility and courage, set against Zeus’ cruelty and tyranny. Aeschylus emphasizes Zeus’ lack of concern for humankind and his desire ‘to destroy the entire human race and to plant a new one in place of it’. It is the hero of humanity, Prometheus, who resists Zeus’ disdain and cruelty, and who represents and saves mortal humanity from Zeus’ (unexplained) desire to ‘utterly destroy’ us and send us all to death in Hades [8]. For this, Aeschylus celebrates Prometheus as the advocate for humankind and – more importantly for our discussion here – he sets up an irreconcilable conflict between Zeus and Prometheus which sets the stage for the later atheistic uses of this myth. Prometheus remains inspirationally steadfast in his defiance and rebellion against Zeus’ tyranny, refusing to succumb to the torture, and refusing to acknowledge Zeus’ authority or to reveal the secret knowledge he has of Zeus’ future demise.

There is another dimension of this theme of secret or forbidden knowledge, a dimension which has an important and particular relevance for the discussion in this chapter. The theme of forbidden knowledge is displayed not only in the esoteric revelation of the secret knowledge of the Eleusinian cult, but also as the more general prohibition of knowledge forbidden by the gods and, I would note, the consequences of seeking or obtaining such knowledge. The fact that Aeschylus’ Prometheus defied Zeus by revealing the forbidden knowledge of survival to humanity (represented by fire) in order to ensure humanity’s survival rendered Prometheus a hero in high relief, while Zeus was shown to be, and condemned as, a despised villain. As noted above, without the gifts Prometheus provided human beings, our mortal species would not have survived. Prometheus, indeed, gave us much more than fire: his gifts included all the essentials for human life and laid the groundwork for the basis of human civilization: the healing arts, remedies to ward off diseases, the art of divination, oracles, omens, metals, intelligence and reason, language and mathematics and so on[9].

It is appropriate, at this point, to note that these substantial themes in Aeschylus’ Promethean drama—particularly, for our purposes here, the heroic defiance and rebellion against a cruel and unjust Zeus—have important similarities with biblical themes, as well as major differences. In the Book of Genesis, for example, Adam and Eve were forbidden to taste of the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. In the centre of the Garden of Eden, God had placed two trees: the Tree of Life and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Regarding the latter, God had prohibited Adam and Eve to eat its fruit (Genesis 2:15- 17), but tempted by the serpent, who assured Eve that eating the forbidden fruit not only would cause her no harm, but would open her eyes so that she would ‘be like God’ (Genesis 3:4-5) [10], Eve succumbed to this lie and to the temptation to acquire the forbidden knowledge. Adam (perhaps out of love for Eve or perhaps to share in Eve’s supposed new-found knowledge and not wanting to be left behind!) likewise ate the fruit. The results of their disobedience were catastrophic: Adam and Eve indeed were awakened to forbidden knowledge, knowing good and evil, but to their dismay, they did not become ‘like God’ but were punished for their ‘origin sin’, as was Prometheus for his disobedience. Similarly, the punishments in both accounts seem unusually cruel and uncompromising: for Adam and Eve it was banishment from the garden and the curse of hardships which humans from that moment were forced to endure in relationships, daily work, and child-bearing. To Adam, God announces the punishment: ‘Cursed is the ground for your sake; / In toil you shall eat of it / All the days of your life, / Both thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you, / And you shall eat of the herb of the field, / till you return to the ground. / For out of it you were taken; / And dust you are, / And to dust you shall return’ (Genesis 3:17-19). To Eve, God pronounced this punishment: ‘I will greatly multiply your sorrow and your conception; / In pain you shall bring forth children; / Your desire shall be for your husband, / And he shall rule over you’ (Genesis 3:16).

Another noteworthy point here, as we compare the Genesis account with the Promethean myth, is to understand that, while the Promethean myth, rebellion and disobedience resulted in the very survival of humanity, the biblical account led to the ‘fall’ of humanity into a lifetime of sin and suffering for Adam and Eve and their progeny. While both accounts show how defiant acts against God or Zeus lead to great suffering (fire, despite its essential role for human survival, also is dangerous), the positive aspect of both rests in the assurance of our survival as a species. This Aeschyelan theme is suggested by Milton [11] in his epic, Paradise Lost (1667), which elaborated upon the Adam and Eve story and interpreted the ‘fall’ as a victory. It was the defiant act and subsequent ‘fall’ of Adam and Eve which enabled humanity to escape from an original state of innocence, seen by Milton as equivalent to ignorance, and which enabled them and their progeny to advance toward a fuller knowledge and wisdom [12]. Yet, of course, this knowledge, despite its benefits, was gained at the price of losing blissful innocence. As in the Promethean myth, the Genesis story, in Milton’s controversial interpretation, involves the paradox of a ‘fall’ into sin, but also its benefits [13]. And there is another paradox, suggested by Chaucer’s Wife of Bath (in Canterbury Tales, 1388): human beings have an innate passion for knowledge, and this passion increases when there are things which have been prohibited: ‘Forbede us thyng, and that desiren we’ (we desire what is forbidden) [14].

This paradox and other questions have long puzzled theologians about the Genesis account of the ‘fall’. Why, for example, would God have planted this forbidden fruit tree in the midst of the garden when, given the propensity of humanity to crave that which is forbidden, disobedience seemed inevitable? Was not, then, the placing of this temptation before Adam and Eve an act of cruelty, similar to the cruelty displayed by Zeus toward humanity and its titan benefactor? Or was the prohibition, perhaps, intended as a just test of humanity’s obedience and faith, a faith in God rather than in human self-sufficiency? Whatever the explanation, what is relevant here (see below) is that the Zeus-figure in the Promethean myth was later merged with the God in the Bible, leading to a theological conceptualization of the Christian God that emphasized those passages (largely Old Testament) in which God appeared as a cruel and wrathful Zeus, destroying cities and punishing his ‘chosen’ people – despite other depictions of the God of the Bible as a loving creator of all things as goods, and as a God who constantly blesses and is involved in the lives of his ‘chosen people’ as those with whom a covenant was made to carry the message of salvation.

Another example of legendary defiance, although not of disobedience, against God’s prohibitive imposition of limits on human knowledge suggests a morally justifiable motive for God’s actions, partially exonerating God from later atheistic accusations of divine cruelty. The Book of Job [15] presents the story of a ‘blameless and upright’ man (Job 1:1) who suffers unusually harsh and unjust cruelty at the hands of Satan. The story’s author assures us that God remains Lord over all creation, but has permitted Satan’s torture of Job (Job 1:6-12) as a test of Job’s faith. The author likely seeks to show that God’s justice can be exonerated despite the manner in which creation had been ordered, that is, where good and evil are not compensated in direct proportion to our deeds [16]. Satan wreaks havoc on Job, taking away everything but his life: his wife, his children, his possessions, his health, his reputation, his dignity. And yet, and despite the counsel of his four friends, three of whom misleadingly insist that his suffering is God’s punishment for his unacknowledged sinfulness, Job persistently maintains his innocence and, in utter despair, demands an explanation from God: ‘My soul loathes my life: / I will give free course to my complaint. / I will speak in the bitterness of my soul. / I will say to God, ‘Do not condemn me; / Show me why You contend with me. / Does it seem good to you to You that You should oppress, / That You should despise the work of your hands?’’ (Job 10:1-2). After a long and deafening silence to Job’s further demands for an audience with God, God finally responds to Job, and in the voice of a whirlwind answers not with the desired and anticipated explanation for Job’s suffering but with a stern admonishment of Job for seeking and demanding knowledge which is incomprehensible to Job and, for this or other reasons, is forbidden (see below): ‘Who is this who darkens counsel / By words without knowledge? . . . . Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? Tell Me, if you have understanding’’ (Job 38:2-3). Wisdom, it is clear to Job, lies solely in God, not in human understanding (Job 28:28).

As with God’s warning to Job, so it is with Milton’s Adam in Paradise Lost. Here, it is Adam who is subjected to the warning from Archangel Raphael against seeking to know too much of Heaven: ‘Blest pair; and O yet happiest if ye seek / No happier state, and know to know no more’ [17]; ‘Heaven is for thee too high / To know what passes there; be lowly wise: / Think only of what concerns thee and thy being; / Dream not of other worlds’ [18]. And it is likewise in Dante’s The Divine Comedy (1321) [19] wherein a departed soul, Peter Damien, warns Dante/the pilgrim, who has traveled through Hell and Purgatory to approach the highest Heavens, that the knowledge he has gained is forbidden to mortals: ‘The truth you fathom lies so deep / in the abyss of the eternal law, / it is cut off from every creature’s sight. / And tell the mortal world when you return / what I told you, so that no man presume / to try to reach a goal as high as this’ [20].

Similar warnings appear in many biblical passages, other than those noted above in Genesis and Job. And yet, paradoxically, there are many passages in which knowledge of God, forbidden and inaccessible to most, is revealed to certain prophets who then are encouraged to reveal that knowledge to the people, mostly in the form of warnings about their sinful ways and the punishment to come if they do not repent. Among the examples of this kind of revelation are the visions of God and/or heaven given to Isaiah (Isaiah 6:1-13), Moses (Exodus 3, 19), Jeremiah (Jeremiah 23:18, 22), Micaiah (I Kings 22:19-22) Ezekiel (Ezekiek1:4-28), and etc.), visions which established their authority to speak on God’s behalf. Paul’s ministry similarly was ordained (Acts 9:3-9, Acts 26:12-18), yet in a passage wherein he speaks in the third person about being ‘caught up into Paradise’, there is paradox in the fact that he then claims that he ‘heard inexpressible words, which it is not lawful for man to utter’ (2 Corinthians 12:1-5). Other biblical passages similarly warn about disclosing certain aspects of forbidden knowledge (cf. Genesis 11:6-7; John 1:18; Colossians 1:15; 1 Timothy 1:17; 6:16; Exodus 33:20, etc.) [21]. Perhaps the paradox is resolved in Jesus’ announcement to his disciples that he has come to reveal knowledge of God and salvation hitherto forbidden and inaccessible (John 1:18, John 14:8-11, etc.). The knowledge Jesus revealed, however, was by no means all knowledge of heaven and earth, but rather knowledge which was essential for salvation. Some knowledge (see below) is far too dangerous and otherwise inappropriate for us to possess.

While any adequate interpretation of this intriguing theme of forbidden knowledge in biblical texts is obviously too complex to attempt here, and even more so if we were to attempt a meaningful and thorough comparison of these texts with similar themes in the Promethean (and other ancient Greek texts), what I suggest we take notice of here are the differences between the nature of Zeus in Aeshcylus’ Prometheus myth and the nature of Yahweh, the biblical God, in the Job and Genesis accounts, and in the other passages noted above. In the Promethean myth the divine prohibition against forbidden knowledge is occasioned by Zeus’ disdain for humanity. By contrast, the God of the Bible -- despite what may appear to be a similarly unjust cruelty toward Adam and Eve, and Job-- is understood by its writers and later theologians as acting always and consistently in love and justice toward humanity. God, after all, is the loving Creator of everything that exists, and who has created humanity in the very ‘image and likeness’ of the Creator (Genesis 1:26). Surely then, while it would be inconceivable that such a God would seek to harm us, we lack full understanding, nonetheless, of God’s reasons for placing limits on knowledge. We can suggest, of course, various explanations for God’s prohibitions against seeking certain aspects of knowledge: such knowledge may be beyond our comprehension, thereby rendering the point of prohibition mute; or perhaps God has revealed what is otherwise inaccessible knowledge only to those whom God has chosen to speak on behalf of the divine will for his ‘chosen people’. Or perhaps God has imposed limits to protect us from knowledge which is far too dangerous and threatening for us to know or experience, given our limited and fragile natures and the state of our spiritual maturity.

Philosopher Nicholas Rescher has suggested much the same with respect to scientific knowledge, namely, that we must maintain a ‘fog of uncertainty’ [22] about certain things since, otherwise, we would be unable to protect ourselves from various dangers: the unmasking of our illusions, for example, or knowing too much about the true nature of reality, or about ourselves, or about our future, or gaining knowledge that would threaten the future of our species, as may be the case with uncontrolled genetic engineering (DNA manipulation, cloning, etc.), or the biochemical warfare research about which the implications are uncertain, etc.. Such considerations, particularly as demonstrated in literature (Meville, Camus, Dickinson, Milton, Dante, Marlowe, Goethe, etc.), have been elaborated in an informative book by Roger Shattuck: it is, as he demonstrates in these authors, dangerous to know too much or too little about something (as philosophers Francis Bacon and Immanuel Kant had pointed out). For in either case, we lose perspective of the thing known or observed [23]. In considering, then, God’s reasons for prohibiting aspects of knowledge, we can now understand more clearly, I think, why God’s imposition of limits is necessary, as is God’s subsequent permission of the human suffering which ensues when limits are violated. Such a God is not to be confused, accordingly, with the cruel tyrant of Prometheus, for Zeus has neither created nor sustains humanity but, rather, has imposed arbitrary limits on humanity to ensure our demise, denying us the essential gifts stolen by Prometheus, gifts which have been forbidden not for noble purposes – to protect us, or as gifts for those chosen for the task of dispensing divine knowledge for the good of humanity, etc. -- but, rather, to ensure our annihilation. Thus, while Zeus and the biblical God have apparent similarities, there seem to me more significant and important differences.

History, however, has witnessed the blending of the two visions of God. As Christianity grew in Hellenic culture, its understanding of God was influenced by and interpreted in terms of this culture, including the Hellenic god popularly represented by Zeus, and the attributes of the God of Plato (in Augustine’s writings) and of Aristotle (in Aquinas’ writings), the latter defining God as an impersonal but absolutely powerful force, the ‘Unmoved Mover’, the ‘Uncaused Cause’, the ‘First Cause’, or ‘Final Cause’ (telos) upon which all worldly events depend [24]. The contention of process theologians is that this misrepresentation of the Christian God is responsible, or at least largely so, for an unsolvable problem of evil [25] and, I would add, it is largely responsible for the rise of atheism during the past three or four hundred years. After more than a thousand-year reign, during which time a uniform faith and obedience to God were maintained as standard Christian teachings and attitudes – and during which time worldly (secular and ‘pagan’) knowledge, human creativity and concern for the worldly life (as opposed to concern for spiritual life) were frowned upon –- the revival of ancient Greek thought and, with it, a worldly humanistic philosophy and a renewed interest in natural science occurred in the Renaissance, accelerated in the Enlightenment’s Age of Reason, and continuing to extend its powerful influence in the contemporary world. Not only was the Promethean myth rediscovered in the midst of this developing ‘modern’ world, but Prometheus became the symbol of its defiance and of the atheistic rebellion against the perceived tyranny of the Christian God, a God whose traditionally ascribed attributes seemed inconsistent with human suffering and as threatening to human freedom and dignity.

I shall return to this specific point later, but wish to turn, first, to examine more closely some relevant passages in Prometheus Bound in order to provide a more detailed account of the differences between Zeus and the God of the Bible, Yahweh, thereby explaining more clearly the atheistic rebellion which has emerged in the modern world. Suffering at the hands of Zeus, and the Platonic-Aristototelian conception of God as an impersonal, impassible, immutable, uncaring, unilateral power, etc. has been merged into Christianity’s understanding of God. Hellenic thought, while conquered politically, nonetheless has infiltrated the theology and religious culture of its conqueror.

Zeus, Yahweh and the Problem of Evil

The cruel tyranny of Zeus is revealed in the extraordinarily harsh punishments he executed on Prometheus in both Hesiod’s and Aeschylus’ versions. This cruelty is amplified in the latter’s influential presentation as the playwright informs us of Zeus’ unexplained disdain for humanity, his abuse of Io, his terrible vengeance against the fellow gods and titans who had rebelled against him, and, of course, his over-reactive and extremely cruel punishment of Prometheus. References to the tyranny, callousness, and cruelty of Zeus are sprinkled liberally throughout the text of Prometheus Bound [26], beginning in the unforgettable first scene. Here, the impressive yet agonizing figure of Prometheus is dragged onto the stage and nailed and bound to a rock in an isolated and dismal mountain crag (in Hesiod, Prometheus was merely bound to a column). We read: ‘For the heart of Zeus is inexorable’, says Hephaistos (Fire) who, along with Kratos (Might) and Bia (Violence), have been assigned to perform the binding and nailing of Prometheus to the rock. Zeus’ callousness toward his fellow gods and titans, against humanity and against Prometheus is continually emphasized by Aeschylus: ‘of woebegone morals he made no account, but desired to destroy the entire race and to plant a new one in place of it’. Prometheus complains throughout the play about the ‘capriciousness’ and ‘cruel threats’ of Zeus, his ‘harsh’ punishment and his ‘keeping justice to himself’, that He is ‘the tyrant of the gods’ who causes unjust and cruel ‘agonies’ and so on. Notably, none of the characters in the play dispute this view of Zeus.

By contrast, Job, the Bible’s main protagonist against the perceived injustice of God (Yahweh) has a much different focus. The nature of God is not presented as an unjust and cruel Zeus, but rather as a just and loving Creator, who cares for the creation despite its sinful and rebellious nature which has led to its just suffering. Rather than cursing God, as Aeschylus’ Prometheus had cursed Zeus – ‘I care less than naught for Zeus' [27] -- Job’s response to the unfair punishment he has received supposedly at the hands of God gives rise to declarations of his love and worship of God, as he remains steadfast in his trust of God’s justice, despite his despair and frustration throughout the ordeal in not being able to comprehend why God has permitted such suffering. In the end, God is not overthrown, as was Zeus, according to Prometheus’ secret knowledge of Zeus’ demise [28] but, rather, God’s benevolent rule is reaffirmed and acknowledged by Job as such: ‘I have uttered [complaints about] what I did not understand / Things too wonderful for me, which I did not know . . . . Therefore, I abhor myself / And repent in dust and ashes’ (Job 42: 3-6).

While the problem of comprehending and reconciling God’s goodness in permitting (or, in some cases, apparently causing) human suffering is not answered in the Book of Job, there are several partial answers scattered throughout the biblical texts: suffering, for example, is attributed not merely to divine punishment, but to God’s warning, or as educational discipline, or a test of faith, or as the means by which to being about spiritual development and maturity, and so on [29]. Biblical writers, to be sure, were not concerned to provide a systematic solution to the problem of God and suffering, a theological justification to exonerate God for causing or permitting human suffering; they accepted suffering as part of God’s incomprehensible will and recognized that evil was to be overcome by penance and atonement to a good and just God. Evil was seen as resulting from human free will and, more increasingly after the Babylonian exile (6th century B.C.) to the corrupted yet free agency of fallen angels who tempted humanity to use its freedom for acts and decisions which produced evil ends. Such evil powers were to be resisted, as was so clearly demonstrated in the spiritual warfare ministry conducted by Jesus [30].

It is relevant to note here that in post-biblical, historical theological discussions of the problem of evil, two main approaches can be distinguished: the existential (or personal), which focuses on the aforementioned biblical strategy of resistance against and coping with evil, and the rational, which seeks an intellectually viable and comprehensive understanding about the relationship between God and suffering. Both approaches begin and end in faith, but the latter moves beyond faith by seeking a rational comprehension, as far as such is possible, that will supplement the faith. This, indeed, is the very nature and task of ‘theology’ – as distinguished from ‘philosophy of religion’ or ‘philosophy’, both of which focus on rational arguments and empirical evidence, and exclude the faith assumptions of ‘theology’. Three main theological solutions (theodicies) have been proposed: (a) the traditional Augustinian (which has dominated Christian thought since its origins in the early 5th century); (b) Alfred North Whitehead’s process theodicy (which was unsystematically proposed in his writings from the 1920s to the 1940s, and elaborated (although, again, unsystematically) by Charles Hartshorne from the 1950s to the end of the 1990s; and (c) John Hick’s so-called Irenaean or ‘soul-making’ theodicy, initiated in the 1960s (but with roots in the 19th century theologian, Freidrich Schleiermacher, and in the 2nd century Greek Church Father, Irenaeus). These theodicies all seek to comprehend how – despite causing or permitting evil – God (theos) is just (dik‘e) – as faith assures us God is – despite human suffering [31].

In what follows, I want to explore the argument of process theology that it, more convincingly than traditional theodicy (and Hick’s revisions of such), conceptualizes God in a way that avoids the Zeus-like characteristics wrongly attributed to the God of traditional Christianity and of western atheism. These characteristics – which define God as ‘impassible’ (unaffected by the world or its creatures), unilaterally ‘omnipotent’ (all-powerful, literally conceived, and as such predetermining), ‘omniscient’ (all-knowing, eternally and timelessly), ‘immutable’ (unchanging, and hence unresponsive to the contingencies of the world and its creatures), etc. – have rendered the theodicy issue virtually unsolvable and, as such, have been a major reason for the rise of contemporary atheism. Process theists argue not only that the ‘traditional’ (Augustinian, Thomistic, Early Protestant) theodicies have misrepresented – or, at the very least, have not be able to present without incredible complexity and paradoxical tension – the true nature of God [32], but so likewise has Hick’s contemporary Irenaean alternative which, while proposed as a radical alternative to traditional theism and theodicy, remains very traditional in its conception of God as all-powerful [33]. These traditional theodicies, then, continue to promote the historical conceptualization of God which seems far too Hellenic and far too similar to the cruel and unjust sovereignty of the Zeus-figure against whom Prometheus contended. In short, process theologians claim that traditional theism has suffered from an overdose of Greek metaphysics and from the tyranny of Prometheus’ nemesis, the cruel, unjust and powerful Zeus.

Promethean Atheism

The contention of process theists is that the traditional conception of God led inevitably to the problem of evil; it led also to the rise of contemporary atheism for which the problem of human freedom, dignity and suffering at the hands of God had become central issues. When the Zeus-like image of God was taken into the early Christian Church, the ground had become fertile for scepticism and atheism. The arrival of a full-fledged secular atheism, however, had to remain dormant during the thousand-year reign of the Age of Faith (c. 4th - 14th centuries). Before this, the Promethean theme of rebellion and defiance against Zeus’ authority continued in writings and reflections in the Greek and Roman era. In general, it seems that the Greeks largely idealized Prometheus’ revolt against divine tyranny, while the Romans largely deplored this revolt as a symbolic rebellion against Roman central authority [34]. Juvenal (55-140 B.C.) and Lucian of Samosata (c. 120-180, who wrote in Greek), for example, wrote grueling satires of the Promethean myth.35 But soon the Roman Empire would fall and become Christian (4th century), and by the time of Augustine (354-430), the Christian Church, following the Roman lead, had managed to suppress Greek myths and philosophies, though ironically, the influence of Hellenic thought on the developing Christian theological conception of God had been significant, especially since the Augustinian synthesis of Greek and Christian ideas.

It was only after the ensuing millennium reign of Christianity that the Renaissance and Enlightenment ushered in a growing discontent with Church authority and its theology, concurrent with a renewed interest and awareness of the apparent conflict between human freedom and belief in the God of official Christiandom, an awareness reflected and symbolized most influentially, perhaps, in the Promethean myth. The Faustian myth, of course, also was exploited (by Marlowe and Goethe) to express the new human attitude of freedom from the Church and the political authority of monarchs [36], as did the rise of the new sciences (and its empiricist method, sanctioned by the Empiricist philosophers), initiated by the Copernicus revolution (15th century) and the shocking assault on freedom and Church authority by Luther (16th century) and Calvin (seventeenth century), founders of the Protestant Reformation. Freedom had become an increasingly central humanistic issue, no longer debated solely within the once-safe confines of Christianity (until Luther’s rejection of free will). In this context, perhaps no theme exemplified by the Promethean myth has been more prevalent and influential than the theme of Promethean atheism and rebellion against the perceived tyranny of the gods – the God of Christianity – and the institutional religion which sanctioned such a conception of God. Prometheus no longer was seen merely as a Titan-god of ancient Greek mythology and drama, but had become the archetypical human, expressing humanity’s best, most noble, heroic qualities, a symbol of human potential, freedom and progress.

This view of Prometheus had become one of the most power symbols that expressed the awakening of Western Christiandom from its Medieval slumber. This awakening, as noted, witnessed the revival of a humanism which exalted human freedom and creativity and, as such, directed the focus of attention away from God and the spiritual world to the world of natural science and its pinnacle, humanity and human reason. Following this renaissance of new thought, or rather, as a natural progression of it, history witnessed the Enlightenment’s empiricism, rationalism, and the naturalistic methods and assumptions of the new sciences, which sought truth without appeal to supernaturalism or divine revelation -- a method forged mainly by Francis Bacon and Galileo, the latter being credited for successfully promoting the new Copernican world view and, both of whom generally have been considered founders of modern science. Both also had a decisive role to play in the separation of the study and purpose of religion and science, a separation which continues to this day) [37]. The Enlightenment’s world view culminated in Newton’s laws of motion and gravity by which he proposed a ‘clockwork’, ‘mechanical’ universe ruled by natural laws, rather than by divine fiat. In short, Newton’s cosmology challenged the traditional wisdom concerning the very nature of the cosmos and God’s place in it. The discovery of new worlds (both extraterrestrially and in the world itself) enlarged human horizons and curiosity, and the printing presses led to a literacy unheard of in previous generations. Significant also were discoveries in the physical sciences – physics, anatomy, geology, and Darwinian biological evolution, etc. – all of which gave further impetus to the growing scepticism about religious supernaturalism, replacing it, first, by a natural religion – deism (wherein God was defined solely as Creator and, as such, became increasingly remote and irrelevant) – and then, as the result of a growing scepticism and agnosticism, by atheism.

Numerous influential writers exemplified this new atheism, but it was Voltaire’s Pandore (1740) [38], perhaps, which was largely responsible for promoting the Promethean myth into public prominence. Prometheus was displayed as the benevolent creator of humanity, while Zeus/Jupiter/the Christian God were depicted as the cruel tyrant who causes the evil and suffering in the world. Napoleon’s scientist during his Egyptian campaign, the Marquis Pierre de La Place (18th century), to note one further prominent example, all-but-deified human intellect and rationality while rejecting traditional religious beliefs as failing to meet the criteria of scientific and philosophical rationality [39] -- a view currently held by philosophical and scientific logical positivists and empiricists who limit knowledge to that which is gained by the scientific method. Such (arbitrary) limitations on what constitutes knowledge have dominated modern thinking, but have not gone unchallenged. Postmodern philosophy of science, represented by Thomas Kuhn, Paul Feyerabend, and many others: see below) challenged the empiricist assumptions. Whitehead had challenged them decades earlier in a vast and complex metaphysical system. A mathematical physicist and philosopher, Whitehead argued against the naturalistic and empiricist assumptions and methods, claiming correctly that they beg the question as to what constitutes legitimate knowledge. Whitehead’s process metaphysics acknowledges a far more fundamental, pre-conscious, non-sensuous experience, which includes religious knowing, not verifiable by the limitations of the scientific method (see below).

While the earliest versions of the Promethean myth (in ancient and modern times) did not express atheism -- expressing, rather, rebellion against the tyrannical reign of Zeus -- a strong atheistic interpretation, as noted above, developed in the modern era (from the 18th century and, perhaps, before this) as the Promethean rebellion against Zeus became a major rallying point for the growing ranks of sceptics and atheists who interpreted the myth as symbolic of their rejection of the God of classical western theism. The Promethean myth – far more clearly than the Marlowe’s or Goethe’s presentations of the Faustian myth, I suggest -- embodied and symbolized the atheistic call for rebellion in the name of human freedom against the cruelty of a Zeus-like God [40]. To a remarkable degree, the Promethean myth has played a significant role in the thought of many of the most influential sceptics and atheists during the past two or three hundred years.

It may be no exaggeration, moreover, to argue that Christian theology – paradoxically, tragically, ironically -- inundated as it was with Aristotelian and Zeus-like images of God, must assume its (significant) share of the blame for the rise of the modern atheistic protest against such a God. Christian theism has incorporated into its conception of God, as noted above, attributes of a Zeus-like tyrant, focusing more on God’s impersonal distance from creation and on divine power, than on benevolence and personal care. The rather distant Yahweh who despite being personalized in Jesus, was taken into the Church’s theology as a God who seemed more Aristoteliathan than personal, a God defined as ‘impassible’ (unaffected by the world and its creatures), ‘immutable’ (an unchanging ‘perfection’), ‘impersonal’, unilaterally ‘omnipotent’ (such that nothing happens except by the deliberation of God’s own will, either permitting it to be done, or doing it directly), ‘omniscient’ (including a foreknowledge such that ‘there can be no increase in the content of God’s knowing’), absolute, and etc., a conception (as noted above) that was worked out most significantly by Augustine among the early Church Fathers and later adapted by Aquinas in his ‘medieval synthesis’ of Aristotelian and Christian thought.

Process theologians contend that this synthesis contributed in no small measure not only to the theodicy problem [41], but laid the groundwork also for the contemporary atheism which extolls human freedom over divine control as an ‘either/or’ dilemma: either human freedom or belief in God. Traditional theologians defended their conceptualization of God within a paradox of complex argumentation, while insisting also (with the exception of Luther and Calvin and their early followers) that human beings were free and morally responsible agents. The apparent contradiction in holding these views simultaneously has been a thorn in the side of Christian theology since the Enlightenment, and had been the focus of many disputes from the very beginnings of Christian theological history. While these challenges to the Augustinian resolution had been defeated historically (Manicheans, Donatists, Pelagians, Semi-Pelagians, Arians, etc.) [42], the Protestant Reformation carried the arguments much further in its denial not only of Church authority (arguing for the authority of Scripture alone) but in its shocking rejection of the genuineness of human freedom and its role in the process of salvation. Their radical theology served to reinforce the strong determinism implicit – but denied by theologians in the Catholic Church -- in the traditional understanding God’s sovereign providence. As such, Luther’s protests gave atheistic sceptics further grounds and incentive for the rejection of such a God in the name of human freedom – the quality so highly valued in the post-Medieval world.

Both Catholics and Protestants claimed Augustine as their inspiration: Protestants exploited the complexities of the free will/divine grace paradox, arguing for certain passages in Augustine, for example, that only Adam and Eve had been free, since their progeny had inherited a ‘fallen’ nature, the ‘original sin’ caused by the Adamic ‘fall’ into disobedience and sin, resulting in the state of non posse non peccare (‘not able not to sin’) [43]. We can do nothing good without God’s enabling grace, which itself is unmerited and predetermined unilaterally by God. No human act is free since nothing can occur without God’s permission and, as Augustine had stated, this permission is in fact God’s causative determination of the act: ‘For it could not be done did He not permit it (and of course His permission is not unwilling, but willing’ and ‘if He wills it, it must necessarily be accomplished’. Augustine’s God ‘sets in motion even in the innermost hearts of men the movement of their will, so that He does through their agency whatever he wishes to perform through them’ [44]. Defending human freedom vis-à-vis God’s power and foreknowledge in view of such ‘hard’ passages in Augustine has been a formidable task for traditional theologians and post-Reformation Catholic theologians. The authoritative voice of Aquinas (13th century) had been no more successful, however, than Augustine’s proposed resolution of the problem. Indeed, it can be argued that Aquinas’ writings – while more systematically presented – are far more complex and forbiding than Augustine’s, and few Protestant theologians or sceptics have been willing to venture into the nuanced and technical mystic of the scholastic reasoning of Aquinas and his followers in order to properly refute the claims presented there. Aquinas offered various and complex arguments, expanding upon Augustine and others, for a reconciliation of human freedom and divine grace. Among these is his controversial distinction between the ‘primary cause’ of every event (God) and the ‘secondary cause’ (the creature), an argument Luther dismissed summarily [45]. The difficulty in accepting Aquinas’ arguments as conclusive and convincing, however, can be seen in the debate between the ‘Thomists’ and the ‘Molinists’, the latter employing a controversial concept of scientia media (‘middle knowledge’) to justify, more clearly than had Aquinas in their view, the compatibility of the traditionally conceived God and human freedom [46]. In recent years, there has been a great flurry of discussion about the merits and demerits of the concept of ‘middle knowledge’. The fact, moreover, that the Catholic Church has not pronounced an official verdict on this dispute bears testimony of the complexity and inconclusiveness of the issues involved.

From the perspective of process theologians, of course, neither the Thomist nor the Molinist solutions have developed a coherent and convincing understanding of how free will is coherent with the traditional doctrine of God. The problem, for process theologians, is that the traditional conception of God is invalid, and this renders human freedom virtually inconceivable, except to proclaim verbally that free will is genuine, i.e., concluding without justification that free will has been reconciled with God’s traditionally conceived attributes [47]. One problem for traditional theists has been to show how one and the same act can be decided ‘necessarily’ and entirely by God, while at the same time allegedly is decided by creatures ‘contingently’ [48]. Hartshorne exploits this problem as follows: ‘in spite of what Thomists say, it is impossible that our act should be both free and yet a logical consequence of a divine action which ‘infallibly’ [eternally and necessarily] produces its effects. Power to cause someone to perform by his own choice an act precisely defined by the cause is meaningless’ [49]. Any attempt to defend genuine human freedom vis-à-vis such a God is’ meaningless’ and beyond intelligible account’ [50].

Luther and other early Protestant Reformers had argued a somewhat similar case, but rather than seeking to defend
the compatibility of human freedom and the traditional doctrine of God, they rejected human free will as incompatible with such a God. It is not an exaggeration to suggest, once again, that such controversy within Christianity has been a breeding ground for the atheistic protest against traditional theism, especially since it seemed to deny genuine human freedom. For this and a host of other concerns about the conception of God in traditional theology, process theists -- following Whitehead and, more especially, Hartshorne’s exhaustive development and defense of the Whiteheadian vision of God -- have undertaken a radical revision of the conception of God in traditional theism and, in doing so, have shown not only how a more adequate conception of God is coherent with human freedom, but this, in turn, confronts sceptics and atheists with a conception of God which is not susceptible to their past criticisms of traditional theism. In short, process theism has undercut the very of contemporary atheism, showing that atheism is based on a invalid and inadequate conception of God. No longer is there a forced option to choose between human freedom or belief in God. Process theism proposes a both/and position.

Commentators, friend and foe alike, continually have pointed out the undeniable taint of a strongly deterministic strain in the traditional conception of God, despite Augustine’s and Aquinas’ insistence to the contrary and their defense of genuine human free will. The issue, as I see it, is no longer the atheistic challenge against belief in God’s existence, but whether traditional theology has conceptualized the most adequate and valid understanding of God. In one sense, the issue may be mute for theologians, since we must and do assume the genuineness of human freedom, despite the failure of theological studies to comprehend and demonstrate more fully and convincingly how such freedom can be reconciled with the God conceptualized by traditional theologians. Theologians, I am suggesting, must presume human freedom is genuine, in spite of the early Protestant Reformers’ rejection of free will -- since it this were not the case, there would have been no point in God’s creation of creatures who could have contributed nothing to God. This would have reduced God to the sole, unilateral determiner of all events -- all goods and evils – a concept which contradicts not just human freedom but God’s goodness and love, given the holocaust and the horrendous evils humanity has endured. Further, without genuine freedom, both Jesus’ ministry and the biblical prophets’ numerous calls to repentance from sin and evil would be reduced to meaninglessness chatter. Augustine and Aquinas, among others, have acknowledged this need to assume free will [51].

Nonetheless, when theologians venture outside the confines of theology to confront sceptics and atheists, we must do more than presume the genuineness of human freedom. We must make the most coherent and convincing argument possible for such freedom, and correspondingly, promote an understanding of God which clearly and convincingly -- more so than in traditional theism – is coherent with this freedom. It has been this very task that process theologians have undertaken. History has shown us that the humanistic atheism which has emerged in western culture, rejects the existence of the classical western understanding of God as an omnipotent, predetermining ruling Caesar, a Zeus-like tyrant against whom human freedom and dignity would indeed be threatened. Whitehead, however, rightly condemned the traditional doctrine as making God a ‘tyrant’ [52] a ‘dictator’ [53], a ‘despot’ [54], ‘the one supreme reality omnipotently disposing a wholly derivative world’ [55], ‘the supreme agency of compulsion’ [ 56]. Whitehead explains further in the following now-famous passage:

When the Western world accepted Christianity, Caesar conquered, and the received texts of Western theology was edited by his lawyers . . . . The brief Galilean vision of humility flickered throughout the ages, uncertainly. In the official formulation of the religion, it has assumed the trivial form of the mere attribution of the Jews that they cherished a misconception of their Messiah. But the deeper idolatry, of the fashioning of God in the image of the Egyptian, Persian, and Roman imperial rulers, was retained. The Church gave unto God the attributes which belonged to Caesar. [57]

Process theologians make similar claims:

Is it not . . . . the case, that the conviction that God is [solely] immutable is part of the Hellenistic rather than the biblical heritage? And, while it was taken up into Christianity by Scholasticism, is it not a fair question to ask whether this aspect of the Hellenization of the Gospels did not itself violate the biblical vision of a personal God . . . . and what sense can we make of a person, either human or divine, who is so unrelated as to be unaffected by others? [58]

The God of Traditional Theology and the Rise of Promethean Atheism

The battle lines have been drawn. Galileo’s new geocentric cosmology had focused attention on the earth and humanity: the ‘heavens’ were no longer understood as a spiritual realm; God became more and more impersonal and distant with the rise of deism and the rejection of traditional supernatural religion; humanists put their faith in human reason and focused on humanity, the natural world and especially on human freedom which was no longer restricted by the traditional church or monarchy; the Enlightenment increasing separated the realms of religious and scientific inquiry. All of this and more seemed to force a choice between the new Enlightenment paradigm and the traditional religious paradigm. Scientific humanism rejected belief in God as antagonistic to the reality and sufficiency of human reason and freedom. Traditional theism appealed to the mystery of revelation, no longer accepted by humanists, and to its complex and virtually incomprehensible scholastic arguments for a paradoxical relationship between divine grace and human nature, between God’s foreknowledge and predestination power with genuine human freedom. From the perspective of process theists, as noted, the tragic – indeed, ironic – problem has been that both atheists and traditional theists assume the same misconception of the attributes of God. I wish to document this point by the witness of influential sceptics in literary and philosophical fields, and -- if space permitted -- could expand this testimony immeasurably with further representatives in these fields, as well as in scientific, psychological, and many other fields besides. All of these testimonies witness the rejection of the traditional conception of God as a threat to human freedom and dignity. Prometheus, implicitly, or just as often explicitly, is cited as the symbol of this rejection of God, identified with the cruel Zeus.

Johann W. Goethe (1749-1832), for example, extolled and popularized not only the legendary figure of Faust for which he is best known, but also the larger-than-life figure of Prometheus, who, with Faust, symbolized humanity’s struggle against the powerful forces that affect us – God, nature, and past authority. Goethe did not complete his full-scale dramatic production of Prometheus -- only a fragment remains -- but he did publish a short, fifty-seven line poem, ‘Prometheus’ (1773), which clearly shows his dissatisfaction with traditional Christian belief:

I know of no poorer thing under the sun than you gods! Wholeheartedly you feed your majesty on sacrificial offerings and the breath of prayers, and you would starve children and beggars were not fools full of hope . . . . I, know you? When did you ever allay the agony that weighed me down? Did you ever dry my terrified tears? Was I not forged into mankind by almighty Time and everlasting Destiny. My masters and yours? Here I sit, forming man in my image, a race to resemble me: To suffer, to weep, to enjoy, to be glad – and never to heed you, like me! [59]

Other prominent examples include the Romantic poets, particularly Lord Byron (1788-1824) and Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822) who -- in the name of human freedom and dignity -- promoted Prometheus as a symbol of noble rebellion and polemic against Christianity’s capricious God. For Byron (especially his Prometheus fragment of 1816), Prometheus became a symbol of divinity and endurance who calls upon humanity to defy its ‘funeral destiny’ by turning our fate into a victory [60]. Byron’s friend, Shelley, the most political of the Romantic poets and perhaps the strongest antagonist against belied in a personal God, states in his epic poem, "Prometheus Unbound" (1820), the following: ‘Prometheus is, as it were, the type of the highest perfection of moral and intellectual nature, impelled by the purest and the truest of motives to the best and noblest ends’. Zeus, by contrast, is the ‘almighty tyrant’, identified explicitly by Shelley with the Christian God. In his Notes regarding his first major poem, "Queen Mab "(1813) [61], furthermore, Shelley rejects such a God, replacing it with the familiar Romantic alternative, a ‘pervading Spirit coeternal with the universe’. Shelley’s atheistic disdain for classical Christian theism runs throughout his work. He has no patience with a personal God or a God who directs us with ‘a peculiar providence’ [62]. As Shelley and Byron fought for political freedom in Italy and Greece, their writings against traditional Christianity recommended a similar defiance of tyranny. As the tyrant God of Christianity is overthrown, they believed, so likewise will earthly tyrants be overthrown.

Further examples of atheistic protest against the God of traditional theism include the philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach (1804-72) who, upon the publication of his influential book, The Essence of Christianity (1841), was often referred to as the ‘new Prometheus’ [63]. He promoted ‘the humanization of God’ and sought to transform and dissolve theology into anthropology. In an earlier book, Thoughts on Death and Immortality (1830), he had denied both immortality and a personal God [64], views which had an impact on the highly influential thinkers, Nietzsche, Marx, and Freud – all of whom followed Feuerbach’s lead in condemning religion as an illusion, and his belief that God is merely a projection of human qualities and needs. Karl Marx (1818-83), for example, extolled Prometheus as ‘the noblest of saints and martyrs in the calendar of philosophy’ for his defiance of Zeus who, Marx held, is reflected in the Christian God and who by his remoteness and control has alienated humankind. The preface to Marx’s doctoral dissertation (University of Jena, 1841) contains the aforementioned citation, as well as the following remark: ‘Philosophy makes no secret of it. The confession of Prometheus’, “In simple words, I hate the gods,” is its own confession, its own aphorism against all heavenly or earthly gods who do not acknowledge human self-consciousness as the highest divinity. It will have none other besides’ [65].

The influence of Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) remains immense. His madman, in The Gay Science (1882-86) [66], announced the death of God, the ominous ring of which still reverberates in society. Nietzsche tirelessly promoted the Promethean ‘will to power’ [67] in explicit opposition to the God of traditional Christianity theism which, in Nietzsche’s view, fostered dehumanizing attitudes of resignation and submission to authority. In Beyond Good and Evil (1886), Nietzsche warred against Christian morality, condemning it as ‘self-mutilation’ and ‘slave morality [68]. In The Birth of Tragedy (1872), he emphasized the world-affirming world view of the Greeks, praising Aeschylus in particular [69]. Nietzsche’s Twilight of the Gods (1888) and The AntiChrist (1888), two late short books, spoke of the ‘sick house and dungeon atmosphere’ of Christianity as a religion of pity, weakness and loss of freedom and power [70]. Nietzsche’s comparison of Prometheus and Adam in The Birth of Tragedy asserted that while Adam’s sin was contemptuous disobedience, Prometheus’s sin was in fact a courageous rebellion [71].

Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-76), the uncompromising atheist, is difficult to interpret with respect to his affirmation of human freedom, on the one hand, and its relationship to his denial of God, on the other. Yet, minimally, we can affirm that Sartre’s basic conviction that humanity is free by nature, indeed ‘condemned to be free’, implied that no God could interfere with this freedom [72]. Albert Camus (1913-60) likewise rebelled against classical theism, especially its conception of divine omnipotence. Camus rejected such a God as indifference to human suffering, and called on humanity to replace God by taking on responsibility for our own histories by confronting the absurdities of life – exemplified best, perhaps, in Camus’s hero, Sisyphus [73].

Sigmund Freud’s (1856-1939) influential psychology reduced religion to sexual needs and immature illusions, and the wish for security. His presentation of an authoritarian father-figure in the image of Zeus implied a God who was the object of need and hatred. Religion, Freud claimed -- reminiscent of Marx’s view of religion as ‘opium for the masses’ -- functions as a narcotic, as an antidote to humanity’s helplessness against inner and outer threats. Freud had little tolerance for traditional religious belief, seeing it as neurotic and a dangerous hindrance both to society and human maturity [74]. Hans Küng’s interpretation of Freud’s views is insightful: "‘What Feuerbach wanted from the philosophical standpoint and Marx from the political-social, Freud sought from the standpoint of depth psychology: emancipation, comprehensive liberation, more humanity on the part of man. It meant in particular opposition to tutelage, domination, oppression by religion, Church, and God himself’" [75]. While it was Sophocles’ Oedipus that Freud chose as his symbol for overcoming illusions and the establishment of self-autonomy, his writings on Prometheus -- although considerably fewer -- were related to this theme: Prometheus stands up, in the name of freedom, as did Oedipus, against the primordial father, the son asserting his autonomy [76]. Such psychological theories, though later modified by Carl Jung (1875-1961) and others, have been powerfully influential in their antagonism against traditional religion and its concept of God. Jung is much more sympathetic toward religion than Freud, yet he promotes not Christianity but a universal spirituality which has given him status as the psychological guru of New Age religion. His view of Christianity is clearly presented in his Answer to Job (1969). Here, he speaks of the need to seek a better understanding of deity than the ‘immoral’, ‘divine savagery and ruthlessness’ displayed by Yahweh [77].

Process Theology’s Rejection of the God Atheists Reject

Process theists contend that Whiteheadian-Hartshornean process theism provides a more systematic, coherent, and cogent vision of God than does the traditional conception of God. Process theism is a radically revised interpretation of the attributes of God and of God’s relationship to creation, an interpretation which has immense implications for Christian thought and its struggle with contemporary atheism, despite resistance and misunderstanding still by the majority of traditional theists, Catholic and Protestant alike. In short, process theism undercuts the very foundation of modern Promethean-inspired atheism. Likewise, process theism ‘dissolves’ the traditional problem of evil, reducing it to a ‘pseudo-problem’ created out of a ‘mass of undigested notions too vague or self-inconsistent to permit any useful application to rational argument’ [78]. Process theism reveals the fundamental -- indeed, ironic -- flaw of Promethean atheism, namely, that the God atheists reject (and traditional theists defend) is a misrepresentation of God. God is not the all-determining power, nor the cruel and remote Zeus. God does not negate or threaten genuine creaturely freedom but, as Hartshorne has convincingly shown, is the very reason that creaturely freedom is genuine [79]. The flaw of traditional theism has been its inability to explain this genuineness vis-à-vis its conceptualization of God (as omnniscient, omnipotent, immutable, impassible, and etc.).

This flawed view has opened the door not only to a series of historical debates and controversies within the Church, most alarmingly those initiated by Luther who denied free will completely, a position which gave further impetus to the modern world’s ever-growing sceptical discontent with traditional theism. By implying in a complexity of scholastic argumentation that only a theological specialist could comprehend – and against its intention – that God’s providential grace and sovereignty operates as a unilateral, predetermining power and in a foreknowledge of events which, as such, have been actualized in eternity ‘before the foundations of the earth were laid" [80]. it is no mystery why such a view invited sceptical, atheistic challenges and criticisms from without and indeed from within Christianity as well. The scholastic argumentation in support of traditional theism was not intended for the masses, of course, but the masses now include influential atheists and academics outside the Church who are not content to acquiesce to the paradoxical mysteries and incomprehensible complexities of the traditional arguments. They rightly seek clearer, more coherent arguments to explain God’s role in human life and a much more cogent and conclusive presentation of the arguments for human freedom upon which the post-Medieval, modern world has focused.

It remains to be seen if traditional theism has valid arguments which, if presented with more care for a wider audience, would stem the atheistic protest against its conceptualization of God. What I am suggesting here, nontheless, is that the traditional arguments have been unconvincing to Protestant Reformers and to growing numbers of intellectuals outside the Church. I am suggesting also that process theologians have made impressive progress in amending some of the fundamental problems and contradictions in traditional theism, including those which are central to the issues of atheism and theodicy – the conception of God and the reconciliation of God’s with genuine human free will. The process God, for example, is relational; God is actively involved in the world; God is personal. The process radically modified conceptualization of God’s attributes see them no longer in terms of the ‘monopolar’ abstractions of traditional theism wherein God, for example, is conceptualized – against traditional theism’s intention to account also for genuine human freedom – as the sole or primary cause of all acts and decisions. In the traditional conceptualization of God as monopolar, God alone was understood to be the sole exception to the ‘law of polarity’, the law Hartshorne has shown to be prevalent in all aspects of human life. [81]. God, for example, was defined by traditional theism solely as ‘necessary’, devoid of ‘contingency’, as wholly ‘immutable’, without ‘mutable’ aspects, as solely ‘being’, devoid of ‘becoming’, as solely ‘absolute’, devoid of ‘relative’ aspects, as ‘independent’ of the world in every respect, devoid of any need or knowledge of the world, and sole ‘cause’ of all things, without being ‘affected’ or ‘influenced’ by any other, etc.

Unfortunately, to keep this essay from expanding into a book-length monograph, I cannot pause to offer in sufficient detail the arguments against the ‘monopolar; God of traditional theism, nor to detail the arguments in favour of a ‘dipolar’ conception of God [82]. We may note, however, one example of the process conception. Hartshorne have argued that a God ‘who cannot in any sense change or have contingent properties is a being for whom whatever happens in the contingent world is literally a matter of indifference. Such a being is totally ‘impassible’ toward all things, utterly insensitive and unresponsive’. This, ‘is the exact opposite of ‘God is love’ . . . . Strange that for so many centuries it was held legitimate to call such a deity a God of love . . . .What we really have is the idea of sheer power, sheer causation, by something wholly neutral as to what, if anything, may be its effects’ [83]. For God’s interaction with the world to be conceptualized more adequately, there must be a real and mutual interdependence between God and creatures. God remains the supreme power, but not the only power. God remains the greatest conceivable being, the supreme object of worship, since perfection need not be understood -- as did the Greeks and traditional theologians -- as immutable and impassible, etc., but as the ability to surpass God’s own self in responding in love, knowledge and justice to the acts of free, contingent beings. ‘A new era in religion’, Hartshorne insisted, ‘may be predicted as soon as men grasp the idea that it is just as true to say that God is the supreme beneficiary or recipient of achievement . . . as that [God] . . . is the supreme benefactor or source of achievement' [84].

The process theists’ understanding of God is based on human experience, the only experience we know with any certainty and intimacy. What follows from this awareness is a generalization that all beings are sentient to some degree at least, depending on their level of complexity. This ‘panpsychism’ (‘psychicalism’ or ‘panexperientialism’) [85] is in direct contradiction to modern scientific materialism and dualism, the latter implying a ‘division of substances into those which do and do not possess a soul [or mind]’ [86], and the former positing ‘the existence of atoms as discontinuous, discrete, independent bits of matter, devoid of feeling and life, isolated except for accidental external relations, timeless and unchanging with respect to internal constitution and hence without growth or evolution’ [87]. The concept of ‘mere matter’ -- the view that something can exist without having some aspect of genuine indeterminacy or creativity at the most fundamental level -- has been shown to be superfluous by modern advances in physics and in the philosophical arguments of Leibniz, Bergson, Peirce, Whitehead and Hartshorne. Hartshorne writes:

To have creatures without freedom would be to have creatures which are not creatures. Divinity is supreme freedom. The absolute negation of freedom is not creaturehood but nonentity. Creaturehood is precisely the status of freedom lacking the supreme qualitites of divine freedom. Between divine freedom and zero freedom, there is plenty of room for all possible creatures. Those who think otherwise, have a strange view of divine freedom! One or two steps down from it, they seem to suppose, lands one in no freedom. How illogical! Any number of steps down can still leave some freedom. [88]

In place of the traditional dualism that conceptualizes mind and matter as two distinct sorts of entities, process thought interprets mind and matter as ‘two ways of describing a reality that has many levels of organization’.89 The most fundamental aspects of all life are microscopic, momentary, and processive instances of energy/matter, Whitehead’s so-called ‘actual entities’. These entities are ‘dipolar’, having both mental and physical characteristics. In entities that have not formed into complex patterns, the physical characteristics predominate; in more complex entities, creativity (freedom at the human level) have developed [90]. As dipolar, human beings have minds and bodies, even though the latter is an abstraction of the former: all life is psychic, but the patterns formed by the basic units of life appear physical to sense experience (which in Whitehead’s metaphysics is secondary to a basic, pre-sensuous experience). Basic reality is energy/matter in continual flux, forming various patterns which vary in complexity. The macroscopic objects of our senses are such patterns, constituted in fact by groupings (‘societies’ and ‘nexus’ of the basic units of reality constituted both by minds and bodies in a complex system of interaction, as Whitehead shows in his seminal work, Process and Reality (1929) [91]. As dipolar, God is the ‘chief exemplification’ of the metaphysical categories which define all life [92]. God, as noted above and in contradistinction to traditional theism, is both ‘immutable’ in essence, but ‘mutable’, changeable in response to change in others; the supreme ‘cause’ of all, yet ‘affected’ by the causation of others; ‘infinite’ in the awareness of all possibilities, but ‘finite’ in the sense that God’s knowledge is restricted by which specific possibilities have been actualized; ‘necessary’ in existence, but ‘contingent’ in response to the world’s contingent acts, etc. [93]

Here is the basic vision of the God of process theism, one which stands as a clear and compelling alternative to the traditional understanding of God. Process metaphysics replaces traditional substance philosophy with a metaphysics of ever-processing energy/matter. God no longer is conceived as the unilateral cause of all events, since all reality has some fundamental aspect of creativity. Neither is God is seen as the ‘coercive’ power of traditional theism, but as a ‘persuasive’ power by which God lures creaturely minds toward the best aesthetic values possible in every situation. This is a true ‘metaphysics of freedom’, wherein both God and creatures exert genuine creativity [94]. God, of course, remains the greatest conceivable power, but not the sole power. There is ‘a division of powers’ [95] and, thus, as Hartshorne writes: ‘The justification of evil is . . . that the creaturely freedom from which evils spring . . . is also an essential aspect of all goods . . . Risk of evil and opportunity for good are two aspects of just one thing, multiple freedom . . . . This is the sole but sufficient reason for evil as such as in general’. [96]

Multiple freedom is possible only if one understands God as persuasive and dipolar, dissolving the traditionally conceived problem of evil. (Theodicy is resolved also, as I have argued elsewhere [97], by the aesthetic theory in process thought.) God is no longer a threat to freedom, but the chief exemplification of the freedom (creativity) shared by creatures, for without creativity as the ultimate and driving creative force in the universe, there could be no creatures, since creatures devoid of creativity cannot exist. The concept of vacuous being is meaningless; the world, moreover, would be a mass of chaotic primitive entities, lacking any organizing aim or purpose or focus without God’s creative direction. In Process and Reality, Whitehead describes in detail how God sets before us (and in non-human creatures) the best aesthetic possibilities for actualization at each moment in our processive existence. Whitehead argues also that God organizes these possibilities into those ideals (Hartshorne sees this an an infinite continuum, rather than specific ideals) which are the most appropriate to be actualized in any situation.

The flaw of Promethean Atheism

The fundamental flaw at the heart of contemporary Promethean atheism, then, is that it is based on a false view of God which has been influenced far too much by Hellenic thought and this, in turn, has rendered the problems of suffering and atheism unavoidable and yet unnecessary. Unfortunately, the more coherent and religiously appealing understanding of God proposed by Whitehead (and then greatly expanded and defended by Hartshorne) remains largely unknown to the religious populace and to academics in all fields outside theological studies. It is largely unknown also to influential writers whose influence on the populace in films and mass market novels and stories is significant. The God of process theology seems to be virtually unknown, moreover, to the vast majority of atheistic scientists, including those (Carl Sagan, Isaac Asimov, and a host of others) who write for the mass markets.

Process theism is known to most theologians, of course, but it has not yet gained a solid foothold among the majority of traditional theologians and philosophers who continue to subject it to superficial critiques of its allegedly ‘finite’ and ‘limited’ God. I say ‘superficial’ critiques since process theists have answered these objections over and over again, largely without much success [98]. It seems that traditional theologians remain content to espouse and defend the traditional, historical Christian paradigm, despite its apparent anomalies, contradictions and incoherencies. The continuing resistance to process theism by traditional theists seems based not only on the strong, almost overwhelming hold which any reigning paradigm would have on a society, but also on a misunderstanding of the alternative conception of God argued for in process theism, especially as it pertains to the denial of unilateral divine omnipotence and the radical revision of other traditional conceptions of fundamental divine attributes.

Hartshorne, for example, has argued that the traditional interpretation of divine power as unilaterally omnipotent, literally having ‘all power’, is a meaningless concept, for if this were the case, God would have nothing over which to exert such all-powerfulness [99]. It is, furthermore, not a ‘limitation’ on God’s power to deny God this meaningless conception. Thus, in response to the complain of traditional theologians that the process God demotes God to ‘finiteness’ and/or ‘weakness’, Hartshorne has replied that this complaint wrongly assumes without adequate argument that the traditional concept of God, as ‘infinite’ and implying a unilaterally coerciveness, is meaningful [100].

To deny God this meaningless power does not weaken God or reduce God to a finite power. Hartshorne has elaborated upon this as follows: Instead of saying that God’s power is limited, suggesting that it is less than some conceivable power, we should rather say: his power is absolutely maximal, the greatest possible, but even the greatest possible power is still one power among others, is not the only power. God can do everything that a God can do, everything that could be done by a ‘being with no possible superior [101]. To insist, as have classical theists that ‘divine omnipotence is the power to do anything that can be done is to equivocate or talk nonsense. There could not be a power to ‘do anything that could be done’. Some things could only be done by local powers; some only by cosmic power’ [102]: ‘We are what we are’, Hartshorne has argued, not simply because divine power has decided or done this or that, but because countless non-divine creature (including our own past selves) have decided what they have decided. Not a single act of a single creatures has been or could have been simply decided by divine action. In the cosmic drama every actor, no matter how humble, contributes to the play something left undetermined by the playwright [103].

Process thinkers, following Hartshorne’s lead, repeatedly have rejected the claim of traditional theists that God must have coercive power (the God atheists likewise assume, and reject), since the ‘merely’ persuasive power of the process God would be unworthy of God as the supreme object of worship [104]. To this, process theist David Griffin has responded that persuasive power not only is a far greater power than unilateral, coercive control,105 but it can be the sole means by which God interacts with creatures (since God, as Mind, implies that God interacts with creatures through our minds, rather than coercively controlling our bodies). It is because God has been conceived as coercive power that traditional theism has been faced with an unsolvable and intolerable problem of evil wherein God is indictable for evil as its cause or for allowing it when it could have been prevented.

Philosophy and Theology

One final point needs to be addressed before concluding this chapter. All theodicies have been criticized for focusing far too much on rational defenses of religious belief in God, i.e., for engaging in intellectual debates with atheistic philosophers rather than seeking to give the discussions practical relevance for the masses of believers who have little time or ability for academic discussions, but who are in need of effective answers to help them cope with the stark reality of suffering. While it is true, unfortunately, that academic discussions on theodicy are often complex and intellectually demanding and, as such, inaccessible and seemingly irrelevant to the general populace, this gulf between academia and the populace is a problem for all academic disciplines: discussions by experts on music, art, literature, the physical and social sciences, medicine, philosophy, etc. likewise seem irrelevant to the populace (and even to academics in other fields). Yet beyond this obvious fact, I would argue that the criticism against academic discussions of theodicy confuses ‘philosophical’ from ‘theological’ discussions on evil. From the philosophical point of view the issues are discussed without the prior commitment to the theological doctrines and beliefs which are central to the theological discussions. Theologians seek to deepen and inform a faith which already exists by critically examining the rational evidence.

Such is the theological mandate: a fides quaerens intellectum (a ‘faith which seeks understanding’). The theological emphasis, accordingly, is not on philosophical debate with atheistic philosophers, but on seeking more understanding of what is already believed in faith – belief in God and that God has a good reason for permitting evils – such that the faith of believers becomes more mature, more deeply and critically informed. Philosophical discussions on theodicy, on the other hand, focus on the atheistic challenge that belief in God is contradictory to the preponderance of evil and suffering in the world. Atheistic philosophers claim to discuss the issues objectively, without the faith presuppositions of theologians; yet, this claim is false. Atheistic philosophers, as is the case also for scientists, for example, who claim objectivity and neutrality in their scientific method – at least until the 1960s when Thomas Kuhn [106], among other historians and philosophers of science, exposed the incredible array of subjectivity and bias in scientific investigation – are just as likely to bring their atheistic presuppositions to their arguments as theists bring theistic assumptions to their discussions.

Theological discussions, then, have a much different focus from philosophical discussions. The former are concerned primarily not to convert atheists, but to defend religious beliefs already held as truths based in biblical (and, for Catholics, also on Church) authority. The theological task is to enable believers in God to cope with suffering more effectively by providing a deeper understanding of the issues involved and to strengthen the faith of believers by sorting out bad answers from better ones [107]. Christians should be mindful here that Jesus’ command was to ‘love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength’ (Mark 12:30) [108]. Loving God with the ‘mind’ refers not just to spiritual knowledge, I suggest, but to the rational and intellectual abilities God has given us. The commandment, then, refers to the whole nature of a human being, not just to our faith. Christians have an obligation to think about what we believe in order to deepen our faith with understanding, rather than remain content with a faith which may be sincere, but without the necessary rational dimension, can be a blind, untested, immature and uninformed faith. Theological discussions of theodicy, as such, are hardly intellectual contests with atheists, nor are they irrelevant to the masses of believers who are also subjected to suffering which may strengthen or weaken their faith. Theological discussions are, rather, the means by which the religious believers can deepen their faith and trust, and eliminate inadequate and dangerous speculations, based on irrationalism or uninformed biblical interpretations, etc.

Conclusion My purpose in this chapter has been to show, at least in a preliminary way, that the neglect of process theism (or whatever merits it may have being appropriated) by traditional theists has had consequences. The main consequence is its inability to justify its central claims about God’s attributes and God’s relationship to human freedom and evil. Traditional theism’s misrepresentation of God has influenced the growth of atheistic protest against its conception of God, fueled by the perception that we are forced to choose between belief in God and human freedom, between the tyrant Zeus and the rebellious and free Prometheus. This ‘either/or’ option is one of the main forces behind modern atheism. Yet, process theism endorses a ‘both/and’ position – both God and human freedom – and presents a cogent understanding of God based on the reality of human experience and creativity. Contemporary Promethean atheism, which mistakenly thinks its only option is rebellion against and rejection of belief in God, is undercut by the process conception of God. The traditional conception of God rightly has been rejected by atheists, for its coercive and dispassionate Zeus-like deity with whom Prometheus had to contend does indeed threaten the genuineness of human freedom and dignity, thereby rendering the theodicy problem unsolvable: if God is the predetermining force, then how is human freedom responsible for a world saturated with evil, and why would God cause such evil, etc.? The process God of loving interaction and persuasive power, however, is compatible with human freedom, not its antithesis. Process theism is not hedged in esoteric scholasticism which renders it irrelevant to religion’s cultured despisers. Indeed, the God of process theology is the very means by which freedom is made possible, for by setting limits to the chaos, presenting creatures with teleological aims, etc., God ensured that the world would be filled with creatures who are genuinely free.

This, however, is not the creation ‘out of nothing’ of traditional theism, but creation from a pre-exiting chaos which itself is co-eternal with God, and yet also an aspect of God’s infinite potential which has been actualized. It is not an ‘other’ which was external to God or independent of God. God creates by persuasively luring a chaotic state of the universe into an orderly world, and within this world God lures creatures toward the actualization of the ideal aesthetic aims at each and every moment. Griffin has argued convincingly, as did Hartshorne, that the traditional doctrine of creation by God ‘out of nothing’ implies unilateral divine power, since to hold that God could create ‘out of nothing’ implies that God would have sole and absolute power over that creation [109]. This doctrine, then, has reinforced the traditional understanding of God’s omnipotence. Hartshorne;s contention, however, has been that God’s creation is best understood not as creatio ex nihilo, but as everlasting and continuous creation. ‘There is no presupposed ‘stuff’ alien to God’s creative work; but rather everything that influences God has already been influenced by him’. God ‘is never confronted by a world whose coming to be antedates his own entire existence’ [110]. Every creature ‘presupposes divine activity as antecedent condition of its coming to be’ [ 111]. The world is not to be understood as ‘a second primordial and everlasting entity over against rather than created by God’ [112]. Rather, it is internal to God, and sine qua non (‘without which not’, i.e., it would be nonexistent without God as its cause). ‘God is the self-identical individuality of the world somewhat as a man is the self-identical individuality of his ever-changing system of atoms’. As such, ‘the only everlasting (and primordial) entity upon which God acts in creation is himself; all individuals, other than himself, which are influenced by his actions are less than everlasting, or at least less than primordial’ [113]. Thus, it is ‘not as if the given world [or its antecedent states] . . . were simply imposed upon God from without as something alien’ [114]. Rather, all created realities arise ‘out of potentialities, essences, of natures of all things, as embraced eternally in the divine essence’ [115] God lures [116] these potentialities into existence, directly influencing the indeterminate actions of creatures (formed by energy patterns of actual entities) at the lowest levels of life. This is not the coercive power of traditional theism, based on a cruel and powerful Zeus nor Aristotle’s remote, immutable, and unilaterally coercive God. The fact that the Zeus-like omnipotence of God has been synthesized into Christianity is, as Hartshorne points out, the most serious of ‘theological mistakes’ bordering on ‘unconscious blasphemy, condemning God to a dead world, probably not distinguishable from no world at all’ [117] and responsible both for an unforgivable theodicy problem and the rise of modern atheistic protest. Process theism has undercut these problems and shown that the Promethean struggle against the tyrant Zeus is not the most coherent, cogent, viable and religiously appealing conception of the God-human relationship. God’s power, rather, is the power of loving persuasion, as revealed in ‘the Galilean origin of Christianity’ [118], and the source of creaturely freedom, not its negation or a threat to it or to human dignity.

EndNotes can be found at this link

© BARRY WHITNEY, 2010. Please request permission from the author at DrBarryWhitney@mac.coma to use this publication in whole or in part in web publications or in other forms of publication and dissemination.