Problems with Sanders’s View of Providence
My friend, John Sanders, has written a powerful proposal for understanding God’s providence. As an open and relational theologian myself, I agree with much of it. But there’s a key problem with his view…
In a recent blog, I summarized Sanders’s version of open and relational theology. I agreed with all I put in my summary of Sanders, which comes from his immensely important book, The God Who Risks. My in-depth study of Sanders’s work is part of a book project of my own, made possible in part by a grant from the Randomness and Providence project.
I also want to say before noting our differences that John Sanders and I are good friends. I consider John a fine scholar and exemplary Christian.
My disagreement with Sanders is over theological points. We both endorse main themes of open and relational theology, and we agree on so much. But our disagreement is over an important set of issues: power, love, and evil.
According to Sanders, God Permits Evil
My central disagreement pertains to how Sanders views the relation between God’s love and power. I disagree with Sanders when he says God allows or permits genuine evil.
In The God Who Risks, Sanders often says God permits evil when it could have been prevented (all quotations in this blog come from that book). “Evil is allowed but not desired by God,” he says. “God permits things to happen, both good and bad, that he does not specifically intend.” General sovereignty “allows for pointless evil.” And “God has the power to prevent sin and evil from coming about.”
When Sanders talks about evil, he apparently means genuine evil. Genuine evils have no specific purpose; they are gratuitous. “Some evil is simply pointless because it does not serve to achieve any greater good,” says Sanders. “Horrible events happen that God did not want to occur.”
But God has a reason for not preventing gratuitous evil, says Sanders. The reason has to do with “the nature of the divine project.” The divine project involves what Sanders calls “general sovereignty.” God’s general sovereignty “does not allow for each and every such evil to be explained,” because “God is only responsible for the structures within which we operate and for those specific acts in history God elects to do.” God’s creational project makes possible the structures of existence in which evil and suffering could occur. But according to Sanders, God does not directly intend or cause evil.
God is ultimately responsible for evil, according to Sanders. “It may be said that God, in permitting significant others who have in fact done evil, takes responsibility for creating a world in which such evil could obtain. But God cannot be blamed for the actual evil of the creatures, since God did not intend it.” Here, Sanders seems to distinguish between God’s ultimate decision to create the universe and the belief that God did not want particular evils.
Is God Like a Parent or Teacher? No
A critic might respond that the God Sanders describes does not act like a loving parent, let alone a perfectly loving God. A loving mother would prevent pointless harm to her child, if she were able. She would not stand by and allow others to assault her child.
While God acts like a loving parent in some respects, says Sanders, God acts differently in others. “Unlike a human parent, God is uniquely responsible for upholding the ontological, moral, and relational structures of the universe.” In other words, God does not prevent genuine evil in specific cases, because God is concerned about the whole.
Sanders also believes God does not act like a teacher whom we might think should halt trouble in the chaotic classroom. For instance, we might think a loving teacher, if he were able, would prevent one student from bullying another. Bullying is an evil we would want to thwart.
In response to the classroom analogy, Sanders says the almighty God “could veto any specific act.” But if God “made a habit of it, then he would turn the beloved into an automaton and thus find himself alone,” says Sanders. “God cannot prevent all the evil in the world and still maintain the condition of fellowship intended by his overarching purpose in creation.” Again, Sanders believes God fails to prevent specific evils, because God has to manage the entire universe.
Notice that Sanders talks about God “making a habit” of vetoing specific acts. This suggests he believes God can and perhaps does occasionally veto acts by controlling others or situations. He says, for instance, “in the God-human relationship, God sometimes decides alone what will happen.” There are “specific acts in history God elects to do.” “Sometimes God unilaterally decides what shall be…” And “there are some things that the almighty God retains the right to enact unilaterally.” Assuming God acts in relation to creatures, the specific divine actions Sanders mentions in these quotations seem to require God to control creatures completely.
We might summarize Sanders’s overall explanation in this way: God decided to create a world in which free creatures might exist and enjoy unforced relationship. Sometimes, however, free creatures do evil. God has the capacity to determine specific acts unilaterally, thereby preventing genuine evil. But God does not usually do so, which means God voluntarily chooses not to prevent evil. God allows it. Controlling others too often would result in a world of robots instead of free creatures.
What Would Victims Say to Sanders’s Proposal?
If I have summarized Sanders’s view correctly, I wonder how the victims of atrocious evils would respond to it. How would the victims of the Boston Marathon bombing respond? What would parents whose child was born with severe disabilities think of it? Or how would victims of rape and murder respond to Sander’s explanation of evil?
I doubt any of these people would find satisfying Sanders’s view that God permits evil that God could have stopped. I do not.
Sanders’s view says God could prevent these instances of evil. But God chooses not to do so. God’s choosing to allow genuine evils is somehow for the good of overall creation. “God elects not to renege on the conditions he established,” to use Sanders’s words. Instead of preventing these evil events, God chooses to “maintain the conditions of fellowship intended by his overarching purpose in creation.” Sanders seems to believe God cannot maintain creation’s overall purpose and prevent individual evil.
We need to listen first to the stories of the victims.
Sanders Says God Voluntarily Restrains from Preventing Evil
Sanders believes God’s failure to prevent evil derives from God’s voluntary commitments. “God does not give up power,” says Sanders, “but he does promise to adhere to the creational structures he made.” And this “divine self-restraint should be understood as the restraint of love in concern for his creatures.”
But this voluntary self-restraint does not sound loving to me!
I doubt God’s alleged self-restraint would sound loving to rape victims and others who endure genuine evil. I cannot imagine God, “I could have prevented your rape, but I voluntarily restrained myself from doing so. I didn’t stop those who violated you, because I am the perfect lover.”
I’m sure most victims of genuine evil think real concern would mean preventing the evil they endured, if prevention had been possible. And Sanders believes God could have prevented these evils, stopped their horrific suffering instantly. The sovereign and loving God who could enact some things unilaterally, as Sanders puts it, should avert pointless misery and death. The God who can veto any specific act should veto acts of genuine evil.
God sometimes “decides alone” or “unilaterally decides what shall be,” says Sanders. The God with the capacity to determine unilaterally, however, apparently has not believed the evil and suffering in the world and our personal lives were bad enough to prevent. Evidently, God’s preventing them would have been worse than allowing them. In my view, however, God’s failure to prevent genuine evil doesn’t sound like God is, as Sanders claims, “fundamentally opposed to sin, evil, and suffering.”
Do Genuine Evils Occur?
At stake is whether rape and the other atrocities are genuine evils. Genuine evils are events that, all things considered, make the world worse than it might have otherwise been. Sanders believes God allows pointless, gratuitous, or genuine evils, so he apparently thinks such evils occur. And he would likely say many atrocities we encounter are genuine evils.
The version of open and relational theology Sanders offers, however, does not actually consider these specific atrocities genuinely evil. His view implies that if God were to intervene and prevent them, God would be unloving.
Preventing the Boston Marathon bombing, for instance, would have been wrong. Love would not have been expressed were God to have prevented the actual rapes, murders, genocides, and incest we have witnessed in our world. God’s loving activity, according to Sanders, entails upholding the ontological, moral, and relational structures of the universe.
Preventing these specific atrocities, on his view, is not the way of love.
Sanders Seems to Offer a Best of All Possible Worlds Theodicy
Sanders’s position ends up sounding like a “best of all possible worlds” defense to the problem of evil. According to it, God allows evil because preventing it would undermine the good of the overall project. Sanders admits that many atrocities are “pointless evils” and “God does not have a specific purpose in mind for these occurrences.” But he also seems to believe “some evils are justified for some greater good.”
I find it difficult to imagine how God preventing rape and murder in any particular instance would throw out of balance the structures of the universe. I am not convinced the creation project requires God to allow genuine evils – including the Boston Marathon bombing, the debilitating condition of severely handicapped infants, the rape and murder of innocent women, and countless other atrocities.
This doesn’t sound to me like God desires, as Sanders alleges, to “bless them with all that is in their best interest.”
Sanders believes open and relational theology supports well the idea that we each have a personal relationship with God. I agree. But in these powerfully personal stories of suffering, tragedy, and evil, Sanders believes God allows atrocities for the good of the whole. His position emphasizes the whole and undermines the personal aspect of open and relational theology he elsewhere embraces.
In short, Sanders fails to solve the problem of evil. And the result is that we should wonder whether God loves perfectly after all.
Without a solution to the problem of evil, we cannot make sense of numerous events in our world. Sanders’s overall version of open and relational theology is largely helpful, and I agree with the majority of what he proposes. But it fails to answer well this crucial question: “Why doesn’t a powerful and loving God prevent all genuine evil, especially specific instances of horror in our personal lives?”
In the final segment of my exploration of Sanders’s view, I’ll show the key difference between his version of open and relational theology and mine. I think readers will be surprised by what I say. I’ll argue that Sanders’s doesn’t follow through when he correctly says love is God’s preeminent attribute.