A Critique of Process Theodicy from an African Perspective

The following article appeared in Process Studies, pp. 103-111, Vol. 17, Number 2, Summer, 1988. Process Studies is published quarterly by the Center for Process Studies, 1325 N. College Ave., Claremont, CA 91711. Used by permission. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


There is a gap between the vocabulary of process thought and the mindset of traditional culture, but this is certainly not grounds for a rejection of Whitehead and his influence. The author looks at process theodicy (the problem of evil) in the context of the Shona people of Zimbabwe.


For several years I have been teaching a course on the problem of evil to seminary students using texts such as Hick’s Evil and the God of Love, Griffin’s God, Power, and Evil, and Davis’ Encountering Evil. Students responded well to the class lectures which drew heavily upon process thought in dealing with the issue of divine power and they read with appreciation texts which reflected the influence of Whitehead’s philosophy. The course from all external evidence seemed popular and effective. Yet I remained troubled by the adequacy of what was being offered. Particularly I questioned the applicability of texts and lectures to situations in other cultures, specifically third world societies. I had a suspicion that the approaches being used to deal with theodicy in a North American classroom may have been far removed from the actual encounter with devastating evil faced by so many in our world.

As a result, I fashioned a sabbatical proposal which would allow me to study the application of first world theodicies to a third world situation. With funding provided by a grant from the Association of Theological Schools, it was possible to travel to Africa to study theodicy in a third world culture, looking at the people of Eastern Africa and particularly the Shona people of Zimbabwe. I expected to spend the time collecting the data that would demonstrate the enormity of evil in southern Africa and that would stand in mockery of ideas such as Hick’s "epistemic distance" or Whitehead’s "poet of the universe." The fact is, however, I encountered in the Shona culture of Zimbabwe an approach toward the problem of evil that entirely altered the focus of the project. One finds in the Shona people a steadfastness in the face of suffering that is difficult to imagine. In spite of living in poverty conditions, having recently survived a long struggle for independence, and even more recently having dealt with an extended drought, the Shona seem to be a fairly contented people.

The Shona in large part do not display a sense of being overwhelmed by evil. They do not spend their time calculating the degree of evil in creation nor do they express anger at spiritual forces for permitting the world to crush them so. Rather they have developed a society that is based on values so foreign to our own Western thought that it raises the important issue of whether our Western based theodicies are irretrievably culture-bound. Where I began the study focusing on the inability of Western theodicies to account for the high incidence of evil in the third world, my focus was now changed to look at the irrelevance and incongruence of the values of Western theodicies in relation to the traditional cultures of southern Africa.

An Introduction to Shona Culture

Shona Spirituality

Because of our own inability to see the whole spectrum of reality as a realm of spirit and because of our own propensity to bifurcate the sacred and the secular, we have tended in the West to interpret reverence for the presence of spirit in nature as a sign of worshiping natural entities themselves. A correct approach to African traditional religion must begin with recognition of the wholeness of an African worldview. Osadolor Imasogie, a Nigerian theologian, writes:

. . . the earth for the African is not just a physical reality on which he lives. It is physical interpenetrated by spiritual forces, and like an onion, it has many layers hidden by the outer layer which is open to observation. The earth is, therefore, not only mysterious but sacred and impregnated with both good and evil as well as neutral spiritual forces. . . . (ATR 56).

For the Shona people of Zimbabwe, there is no realm apart from the spiritual. No object and no creature is "natural" if by that term is meant existing apart from spiritual influence. Prior to the coming of the Christian missionaries there was no Shona word for religion. It was not some part of life one could step back from and analyze, for all of life was thoroughly spiritual.

It is difficult for the Westerner to grasp fully the extent of Shona spirituality. We tend to think of the "spiritual" person as one who meditates often, or who sees God active in many ways, or who recognizes a holiness pervading some events in the natural order. These are each timid and half-way steps in comparison to Shona thought. Perhaps this point is best seen in a rejection of Christian missionary spirituality. Imasogie of Nigeria argues that the missionary movement in Africa has not heightened general spiritual awareness but has in fact led to a stark despiritualization of the African people. That is, the Christian missionary movement has been a key secularizing force among traditional cultures. Why? Because along with their gospel message the missionaries also brought with them their scientific mindset which presupposed secondary causation, accident, a separate natural order, and a generally bifurcated worldview. Imasogie concludes: "traditional Christian theology has been ineffective in Africa because it is conditioned by a quasi-scientific world view which bends it, and thereby makes it "unresponsive to, the reality of the African’s self-understanding within his own world view" (GCT 47). John Mbiti makes the same point even more forcefully when he cries out that "Africa does not want imported Christianity because too much of it will only castrate us spiritually, or turn us into spiritual cripples" (CCA). By preaching a gospel that accepted a spirit-nature dualism unknown in traditional culture, the Christian missionaries to Africa have brought with them the seeds of unbelief and secularization.

In terms of application to the issue of theodicy, this intensity of spirituality is expressed through a rejection of the idea of accident. There is no such thing as an event without purpose in Shona thought. Disease, death, a stillborn child, a fire caused by lightning, are each the result of the confluence of the anger of the spirit-world and the waywardness of persons. According to John Pobee, "the primary cause of evil in traditional society is the spirit beings . . . and the secondary cause is the man who has done something wrong" (TAT 100). Misfortune is thereby understood always to have a metaphysical cause. This position is upheld even in the face of modern technology. The skill of the medical doctor can deal with the manifestation of most diseases. The Shona realize that; but they would go on to insist that no amount of medical knowledge can deal with the real cause of the disease itself. So a child is treated successfully with Western medicine for an attack of malaria. Still Western medicine cannot answer the question, why did the mosquito bite my child? Persons must always look beyond physical events to their spiritual etiology.

The focus of Shona religion is on the highly developed role of ancestor spirits. The Shona believe that upon death one’s spirit (the Shona word is mweya meaning breath or wind) leaves the body continuing to influence community life in the realm of the living-dead. The power of the living-dead is understood in Shona life in terms of spirits maintaining the traditional life of the community through continued influence. Thus the living-dead act as the basis of the moral life of the family and village, rewarding or punishing as the case may be.

Shona religion functions so as to meet two crucial needs of the believer. First, it provides a mode of communication with those powers seen to control individual and tribal welfare. The most common ritual is the brewing of beer for ancestral spirits both to invite their blessings and to appease their displeasure. A second important function is that Shona religion provides a framework for understanding the events of everyday life, explaining the sources of weal and woe through references to the living-dead.

Shona Community

Before all else in Shona life, a person is a member of the community. Initial greetings given upon the meeting of strangers are efforts to determine what totem, tribe or family the individual represents. In a dramatic contrast to Western individualism, Shona culture subordinates the separateness of personal identity to the well-being of the community as a whole. Michael Gelfand notes the importance of communal identity when he writes:

One of the outstanding features of Shona life, which also determines to a great extent the behavior of the individual, is the emphasis placed on the family unit . . . . the Shona family is a strong, closely knit unit with a powerful magnetic pull, drawing each one into its bonds. This family unit reminds me of a small fortress designed to protect and aid each person inside it, who also contributes towards the maintenance and sustenance of the rest. (AB 9)

The strength of the family ties is fortified by intimate bonds at both extremes of the life span. A young child is kept close to the mother, being carried on the mother’s back in a comfortable sling. For two years the child will be carried in this manner during most of its waking hours. At the other end of age spectrum, the family bonds are understood to include the spirits of the living-dead, the family’s ancestors to whom they look for protection and guidance.

The sense of community is best expressed in the use of names in Shona culture. Individual names are rarely used. Instead persons are addressed by relational titles. Even husband and wife would use titles (mai-mother, baba-father) in talking to one another. It can be extremely offensive to call a named woman by her individual name. I first realized this emphasis on family titles when I called at a friend’s home and was greeted by his young nephew who had been living with his uncle for several months. I asked to speak to Henry, my friend, and received as a response only a blanic stare from his young nephew. Only when I requested to speak to Baba va Rutendo (the family title: father of Rutendo) did the young boy know for whom I was asking. One’s identity rests upon family relationships.

The sense of community is expressed in a deep commitment to community well-being. In Shona society one can depend upon family ties for sustenance and protection. There is a felt obligation to care for family needs up to three or four degrees of relationship. When one is in need that person expects help from the family; when one has a surplus he or she expects to share with the family. One Shona man put it in these words: "If my brother has two chickens, I go and get my chicken. If my brother has two shirts, I go and get my shirt. I need no invitation to eat my brother’s food."

In this setting it is easy to understand why sin is defined as an act against the family and community. Kwame Bediako writes, "in our tradition, the essence of sin is in its being an antisocial act" (BCC 103). Sin is seen as damaging the collective life. Pobee states plainly, "Egocentricity is wicked and self-defeating and as such is deprecated" (TAT 116). Time and again when asked to give examples of that which is evil, Shona people would name those acts which alienate the individual from the group. It is for this reason that the crucial challenge now facing Shona culture is not technology; that can be accommodated. The primary threat is urbanization which inherently weakens family and tribal ties and thereby undercuts the very foundation of traditional culture.

Shona Conformity

The most intriguing aspect of Shona culture is its strong emphasis upon normalcy. Because of the central role played by the living-dead in the life of the community, moral expectations are tied directly to past traditions. The tribal and family leaders who established and maintained society’s customs are now the spiritual enforcers of those customs. As a consequence culture places a premium not on creativity, individuality, or unique expression, but rather on sameness and continuity.

This desire for conformity means that evil is identified as that which deviates from the norm. The examples of this drive for uniformity and fear of the unusual abound in everyday Shona life. If a community were to encounter an evil which they came to blame on a witch, a Western observer could perhaps understand how a village could turn on a deformed woman. Yet the same Shona villagers would also be inclined to seek revenge upon an extremely beautiful woman. We can understand how extreme poverty would be seen as a sign of the forces of evil at work, yet the Shona would also insist that ostentatious wealth is a sure sign of evil power in one’s life. It would trouble many Shona parents for a person to approach their child with compliments such as "What a beautiful baby!" Any event out of the ordinary is interpreted as an evil omen or the eruption of evil power into the midst of life. Though now rare, a generation ago could have provided more gruesome examples of this enforced uniformity at work as sometimes twins were killed, children whose upper teeth protruded before the lower ones had the teeth forcibly removed, breech births or prolonged labor were treated with fear and as an occasion for confession. Mbiti notes, "such births were experienced as heralds of misfortune. The people concerned experienced them as a threat to their whole existence, as a sign that something wrong had happened to cause the births, and that something worse still would happen to the whole community if the ‘evil’ were not removed" (ARP 117-118).

Combined with the strong emphasis upon communal values the stress placed on uniformity results in a dramatically different valuation upon individual expression than one would find in the West. Though not generally true in Shona life, Mugambi and Kirima note that even the counting of people or cattle is forbidden in many African cultures. "One of the reasons for such prohibition is the fear that misfortune might befall those who are pointed out during the counting. Another reason may be that people generally prefer to be considered as members of social units . . . rather than as individuals" (ARN 12). A medical doctor described the de-emphasis upon individual expression in this telling story of a Shona woman:

An old woman was admitted to our hospital and refused to give her own name. In the end she gave a name, not her own but that of one of her grandchildren . . . . When asked why she had given us a wrong name, she said: "what does it matter whether you have my own or the child’s name, we are one anyway. (SL 296-297)

This brief story not only points to the grandmother’s willingness to erase her own individuality for the sake of communal values, it also suggests that the grandmother expected of her descendent a sameness of desire and expression.

The ethical structures of Shona culture are built upon a foundation of communal harmony and social equilibrium. In such a society the ideals of individualism, ego-assertiveness, or the unique acts of genius are not greatly appreciated. The desire to change, the conception of progress, the expectation of individuals in competition, none of these presuppositions of Western life finds support in the conforming and traditional society of the Shona.

Shona Values and Process Theodicy

Is it fair to raise the question of the congruence of process theodicy and a third-world culture? Process thought has developed largely within the matrix of Western values without many sustained attempts to incorporate third-world understandings or criticisms. Can we rightly expect such a first-world phenomenon to reflect third-world concerns? The answer to these questions it seems must be an unqualified yes. Yes, we should attempt to broaden our philosophical and theological projects to be as inclusive as possible. We should always remain conscious of the cultural bias that taints our thinking. This is a particularly important reminder for process thought for two reasons: (1) process thought and its development of a concern for a post modern world does seek for universal applicability, and yet (2) process thought has in fact been birthed and nourished within a largely elite, middle class, Western, modern environment. If process theodicy is to achieve recognition in the two-thirds world, it must develop the broadest possible base while at the same time speaking with meaning to specific cultures. Imasogie in developing guidelines for an African theology suggests, "Theology, if it is authentic, must participate in universality. However, the aim is to stress that no theology is authentic and unusual if it does not meet the integrated needs of a particular people in a particular historical context" (OCT 19). What then can we say of process theodicy in relation to traditional Shona culture? There are, of course, both points of convergence and areas of divergence.

Points of Convergence

Reality As a Society

The one point at which process theodicy and Shona culture speak with a single voice is in understanding the world according to an organismic model which then leads to an ethic valuing communal structures. The sympathetic unity of Whitehead’s universe is reflected in traditional culture’s appreciation for the oneness of all existence. The circle is an ever present pattern in Shona life, giving shape to the roundoval or thatched hut, surrounding a circular cattle kraal or enclosure.

The circle is the most telling symbol of the African world view. To comprehend its nature is to come close to the African feeling of unity and harmony. The area circumscribed by the circle is unbroken and whole. It has no top or bottom, no more or less. All the dynamics in this area combine to form a balanced harmony. (UA 112-113)

The refusal of Shona thought to separate life from nature, matter from spirit, or persons from one another is the keystone of dialogue between process thinkers and traditional cultures.

Reality as Spiritually Alive

A second issue on which there is a high degree of compatibility is the affirmation found in traditional and process thought of the liveliness of the universe. Both process theology and African traditional religion stand in stark contrast to the secularity of so much in Western life. Whitehead’s writings rejecting the implication of a naturalistic scientism speak in concert with the insistence in Shona life upon a thoroughgoing spirituality. Rena Karefa-Smart has referred to secular materialism as "the unconscious missionary faith of the West." Against this interpretation of reality as being composed of dead, lifeless stuff, process thought and African faith stand together in opposition, affirming a mentality permeating all creation. At this point process theodicy has an opportunity to help in the "Africanization" of Christianity by insisting that Biblical faith need not be tied to outmoded theories of physical science once current in Western life. Bediako raises a haunting question concerning the Christian missionary enterprise up until the present time:

Africans could only receive and articulate the faith insofar as they kept to the boundaries and models defined by the Christian traditions of Europe. Christ could not inhabit the spiritual universe of the African consciousness except, in essence, as a stranger . . . ; must we become other than African in order to be truly Christian? (BCC 87)

By affirming the depth of Shona spirituality and by repudiating secularity as the proper presentation of modern-day faith, process theology can serve as a valuable support to African forms of Christian expression.

One clear caveat must be stated in discussing this topic of theodicy and African spirituality. There is a point where the traditions of African faith and the teachings of process thought diverge widely -- the African insistence upon an ontology of evil. As John Pobee argues, African theodicy "starting with a spiritual ontology (that the world is surrounded by hosts of spirit beings) attributes evil to personal forces of evil" (TAT 99-100). While affirming the liveliness of the universe, process thought must equip itself to respond to the African insistence upon personalizing this spiritual force in the realm of the living-dead.

The Disvalue of Triviality

Perhaps the point of greatest tension between Shona society and the values of process thought is precisely confronted when we turn directly to the issue of triviality. In its past formulations process theodicy has argued that triviality is the supreme disvalue; in fact, Griffin plainly labels unnecessary triviality as genuine evil. The disvalue of trivial existence is the presupposition upon which Griffin goes on to argue for the goodness and the necessity of the creative process. He writes, "Recognizing that unnecessary triviality is an evil provides a basis for understanding the evolutionary development of our world as manifesting the creative purpose of a good God" (GPE 285). Arguing that persons may even prefer death to a continuation of life at a trivial level Griffin describes the human dimension of triviality as "boredom, lack of zest and excitement" (GPE 282).

If triviality is equated with evil, its opposite, creative intensity, is understood as the benchmark of goodness. Griffin insists that built into the very framework of Whitehead’s structure is the aim of escape from triviality. "Whitehead understands the subjective aim of every actual occasion as twofold: it is an aim at intensity in the present, and also an aim to contribute intensity to the future" (OPE 287). Whitney summarizes the process position when he states, "To achieve aesthetic value, variety and intensity are required" (EPG 145).

The contrast could not be more strongly drawn than between the value of variety and intensity in process thought and the value of conformity and uniformity in the traditional culture of the Shona. The Western scholar who has studied Shona culture most thoroughly, Michael Gelfand, underscores the emphasis upon normality.

The Shona avoids anything unusual. He likes to follow what is considered the customary or usual practices of his society. He would not want to be singled out for anything out of the ordinary. All he asks is that he be like others with a good name.

* * * * * * * *

The Shona do not want the brilliant or backward man. A genius would not survive in this society as he would want to change the way of living. . . . In a society where the wide extremes of intelligence are eliminated, the tendency would be to breed true to type -- that is to produce a man who is normal.

* * * * * * * *

In other words, the Shona, in order to survive in this land, realized that the one way of achieving this was for men to be as equal to one another as possible and endowed with a normal amount of personality or intelligence, and that they should work as a group or a part of a society rather than as individuals. (GS 162-163).

The hope of developing a sustainable dialogue between process thinkers and representatives of traditional culture will depend a great deal upon the willingness of Western theologians to reevaluate their definitions of triviality. Some way must be found to lessen the harsh indictment of triviality in order to encompass traditional communities within the vision of process thought. As it now stands one group’s value is precisely the other culture’s disvalue.

Process Thought and Evolutionary Progress

Process thought by its very name sees reality as a dynamic enterprise, but more than that, process theodicy would insist that evolution is a function of the purposeful luring of God moving creation toward higher degrees of expression. From the perspective of traditional society two questions would be raised. First, as we have just mentioned, the conception of change and development is not an innate value in African life; in fact it is often something to be avoided and feared. Second, from the viewpoint of the African setting, one would express utter bafflement at how anyone could survey current events and still hold to a cheerful optimism that life is being effectively lured onward by a loving God. Historically it is difficult to plot the course of human advancement in the creeping sands of the Sahel, the burgeoning slums of Nairobi or the utter destitution of the entire Mozambican economy.

The key issue here is the nature of God’s persuasive power. Frankly, on this issue, process theodicy lacks a needed precision. Whitney notes this fact when he states, "There is little by way of explicit and systematic definitions of ‘persuasive’ and ‘coercive’ power in the process literature -- an astonishing fact, bearing in mind that these concepts are of such central importance to process theism" (EPO 145). It would help greatly if process theology could be developed with more of an eye to the issue of divine management style.

Process Thought and Western Values

We have looked at the crucial process values of intensity and progress and yet there still remain laced throughout process theodicy other examples of glaringly parochial ideals. Naturally our cultural values are reflected in our theologies. This seems particularly true, however, of the writings up until the present in process thought. It is an enlightening experience to note as you read through process literature how often the central values of Western life surface as the ideals of Whitehead’s system. Let me list just four examples.

(I) Creativity -- process theodicy refers to creativity as "the ultimate metaphysical principle" which inheres in "the nature of things." Griffin insists that "creative power is not a contingent feature of reality. It is beyond all volition, even God’s" (GPE 279).

(2) Freedom -- Like creativity, freedom is so valued that it is placed beyond even God’s ability to curtail. Griffin ties the expression of value to the degree of freedom when he writes: . . . no significant degree of intrinsic value would be possible without a significant degree of freedom" (GPE 292).

(3) Novelty -- Whitehead himself defines God as "the organ of novelty." Griffin underscores the importance of novelty when he argues that "novelty of reaction is also necessary, if one is to achieve intense experience" (GPE 289).

(4) Self-determination -- If beauty demands a degree of order it also necessitates the presence of self-determination, and process thought identifies mentality with the very capacity for self-determination Griffin states: ‘The divine aim . . . . leads God to encourage the development of mentality or the power of self-determination in the world" (GPE 287).

To Western ears this list of attributes -- creativity, freedom, novelty, and self-determination -- sounds like the roll call of virtue. Each of these terms is, however, a word that sparks little attraction in traditional cultures. Even when the terminology may be identical, as in the cry of freedom used during wars of liberation, the content of that term bears a very different meaning in non-Western societies and in non-capitalist economies.

The fact that there is a gap between the vocabulary of process thought and the mindset of traditional culture is certainly not grounds for a devastating rejection of Whitehead and his influence. It is a call, however, for a heightened sensitivity in the future development of process theodicy so that the needs and worldview of the third-world citizen might not be ignored.



AB -- Michael Gelfand. African Background: The Traditional Culture of the Shona Speaking People. Cape Town: Juta and Co., 1965.

ARH -- Jesus Mugambi and Necodemiss Kirima. The African Religious Heritage. Nairobi: Oxford University Press, 1982.

ARP -- John S. Mbiti. African Religions and Philosophy. London: Hunemann, 1982.

ATR -- Osadolor Imasogie. African Traditional Religions. Ibadan, Nigeria: African University Press, 1982.

BCC -- Kwame Bediako. "Biblical Christologies in the Context of African Traditional Religions." Sharing Jesus in the Two Thirds World. Ed. Venay Smauel and Chris Sugden. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1984.

CCA -- John Mbiti. "Christianity and Culture in Africa." Recorded speech.

EPG -- Barry L. Whitney. Evil and the Process God. Toronto: Edwin Mellen Press, 1985.

GCT -- Osadolor Imasogie. Guidelines for Christian Theology in Africa. Achimota, Ghana: African Christian Press, 1983.

GPE -- David Ray Griffin. God, Power, and Evil. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1976.

GS -- Michael Gelfand. The Genuine Shona. Gweru: Mambo Press, 1984.

SL -- Herbert Aschwanden. Symbols of Life. Gweru: Mambo Press, 1982.h

TAT -- John S. Pobee. Toward An African Theology. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1979.

UA -- Theo Sundermeier. "Unio Analogica: Understanding African Dynamistic Patterns of Thought." Missionalia 1:3 (November 1973).