David Ray Griffin (1939–2022)

1. Brief Vita

Born in 1939, David Ray Griffin is one of the leading voices in process and constructive postmodern theology. Griffin’s theological and philosophical interests are broad and varied, and include Christology, the problem of evil, parapsychology, postmodernism, ecology, the role of the American empire in global politics, and the events surrounding the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States of America.

As a college student at Northwest Christian College in Oregon, Griffin initially studied for the Christian ministry, but became disenchanted with the theological conservatism that had characterized his youthful religious experience. Griffin turned to a theosophical blend of Christianity and Hinduism in his quest for a more inclusive and meaningful religious experience.

After meeting process theologian John Cobb, Griffin enrolled at the Claremont School of Theology in California, where he initially focused on Eastern religious traditions. However, he became captivated by process theology as a result of his participation in Professor Cobb’s course on “Whitehead’s Philosophy and its Religious Relevance.” Griffin was especially intrigued by Cobb’s assertion that process theology provided “a way between the old supernaturalism, according to which God miraculously interrupted the normal causal processes now and then, and a view according to which God is something like a cosmic hydraulic jack, exerting the same influence always and everywhere” (1989a, 3). As a result of Cobb’s influence, Griffin turned to philosophical theology and process theology. As a graduate student at Claremont, Griffin discovered the importance of process theology as the basis for a creative vision of social and ecological ethics.

Following graduation from the Claremont Graduate University, Griffin taught at the University of Dayton (1968-1973) and the Claremont School of Theology and Claremont Graduate University (1973-2004). Griffin is currently Professor of Religion and Theology (emeritus) at Claremont School of Theology and Claremont Graduate University and co-director of the Center for Process Studies in Claremont, California. Griffin resides in Santa Barbara, California.

As a professor for three decades at the Claremont School of Theology and Claremont Graduate University, Griffin recognized the importance of constructive postmodern theology in responding to the current crises in ecology, politics, economics, theology, and faith and science. In particular, Griffin noted that the most serious problems relating to the intelligibility of divine activity result from the modern worldview’s synthesis of supernaturalism, dualism, and materialism. In contrast to the modern worldview, Griffin asserts that process thought provides a compelling postmodern vision of divine-human partnership, theistic naturalism, naturalistic parapsychology, and just economic and political relationships.

2. Themes in Griffin’s Philosophical Theology

God, Power, and Evil. Griffin sees theodicy, or the problem of evil, as one of the most crucial questions in philosophical theology. According to Griffin, a significant theme in Western religion is the belief that God controls, or could control, every detail in the events of the world. According to the traditional doctrine of omnipotence, God chooses or permits all the evils that occur, even those evils that appear to have little or no redemptive value, or from which no conceivable greater good can be achieved. This leads to a conflict in the image of God, reflected in the sharp dualism of divine goodness and power. Griffin believes that the classical image of divine power forces persons to admit that God is either not all powerful, not all good, or non-existent.

Following Whitehead, Griffin chooses to describe divine power in terms of persuasion rather than coercion. From this perspective, every creature that is a true individual is a center of power in the context of divine and environmental influence. While God shapes all things through the initial aim, God is only one factor, albeit the most significant factor, in each actual occasion’s process of self-creation. Many other factors, including the occasion’s own process of self-determination, shape each entity. In cosmic as well as individual terms, God creates from chaos rather than from absolute nothingness. Although God’s ongoing and omnipresent aim at novelty, intensity, and complexity of experience leads to the emergence of creatures capable of experiencing love and performing acts of unexpected kindness and self-sacrifice, this same creaturely freedom and creativity is also a source of much of the suffering in the world. The God who seeks beauty and complexity of experience is, accordingly, indirectly responsible for the reality of discord and pain, although not the specific evils, of the world. In contrast to the impassibility characteristic of traditional images of God, Griffin holds that God experiences the pain and suffering directly and seeks to bring wholeness and beauty from the tragedies of life.

Griffin believes that process theology provides a convincing alternative to the unsolvable problems of classical theism by (1) defining divine power as limited and persuasive, and (2) affirming that God experiences and responds to the suffering indirectly caused by God’s role in the evolution of complex species.

Constructive Postmodernism. Guided by Whitehead’s metaphysical vision,Griffin describes himself as a constructive postmodern theologian. While he has much in common in his critique of modernity with contemporary theistic and atheistic deconstructionists, Griffin believes that constructive postmodernism is a creative synthesis of the best insights of ancient wisdom, modernity, the new physics, and postmodern thinking. With deconstructionists such as Jacques Derrida, Griffin recognizes the relativity of all knowledge. However, in contrast to Derrida’s anti-foundational and anti-metaphysical perspective, at least as widely interpreted, constructive postmodernism affirms that persons may experience universals at the unconscious level and, thus, construct relative, but insightful, world-views that shape their values and behavior.

Griffin believes that despite its role in bringing about the technological and scientific achievements of the modern era, the modern world-view is in need of radical transformation. This is both a metaphysical and an ethical issue insofar as the modern world view has led to negative consequences in the relationship of humankind and nature, the use of technology, and individualistic economics.

Griffin critiques the following aspects of the modern worldview:

(1) the nature of divine activity as supernatural and coercive;

(2) the deistic understanding of the God-world relationship (God is external to the world and present only in terms of supernatural interventions);

(3) the mechanistic understanding of nature (nature is lifeless, valueless, and insentient);

(4) the dualism of mind and body, and humankind and nature;

(5) the focus on sense-perception as the primary form of experience and sole basis of knowledge;

(6) the view that individualism is prior to community in human relationships.

In contrast, constructive, process-oriented postmodernism describes a lively and dynamic universe, characterized by the following:

(1) the primacy of relationships in the human and non-human worlds;

(2) the affirmation of non-sensory experience as the primary mode of perception (the primacy of prehension in the mode of causal efficacy);

(3) panexperientialism;

(4) the organic nature of reality in which mind and body form an interdependent unity;

(5) creativity and value as essential to reality;

(6) theistic naturalism and panentheism (God as immanent within the creative process, working within the dynamic and contextual laws of nature).[1]

Griffin believes that the world-view suggested by constructive postmodernism would be a positive factor in transforming our attitudes toward nature and non-human life, foreign policy, and economic justice.

Naturalistic theism. Griffin believes that adherence to the modern world-view has led to the destructive and ultimately unnecessary chasm between religion and science. On the one hand, scientific naturalism describes the universe as an extremely complex web of cause-and-effect relationships in which each event can be explained by antecedent events operating in a uniform fashion. On the other hand, religious supernaturalism affirms that God is able to interrupt the closed-system world of naturalistic causation in order to achieve God’s aims in history and individual life. Griffin believes that process theology offers an alternative vision of reality that affirms both natural causes and divine activity.

In contrast to deism, Griffin affirms that God is constantly acting within the world process. Divine activity is relational, contextual, and persuasive. Accordingly, Griffin challenges supernatural and unilateral understandings of divine activity that place God outside the world process. Following Whitehead, Griffin affirms that God is not an exception to, but the supreme exemplification of, the metaphysical principles characterizing all things.

According to Griffin, supernaturalism is grounded in a mechanistic and dualistic vision of reality characterized by a radical discontinuity between God and the world. God acts from the outside without regard to the ordinary processes of nature and can overturn the predictable laws of nature arbitrarily and at will. This image of divine power makes God directly culpable, either through action or permission, of the evils of the world. In contrast to supernaturalism, Griffin asserts that while God’s presence is ubiquitous and influential, it is also variable in the world. God works from within the creative process, influencing each creature toward the achievement of its highest good in relationship to its environment and previous decisions. God works with, rather than undermines, creaturely freedom to achieve God’s aims for complexity, intensity, and beauty of experience. While the form of divine activity is similar in all things, divine activity is concrete and specific in its content.

Griffin asserts that panexperientialism, the belief that all actual entities have some form of experience, not only locates divine activity within natural processes, but also overcomes the mind-body dualism, characteristic of the modern world view. God is a factor in the self-creation of every moment of experience. Further, every moment of experience integrates physical prehensions of its past with mental prehensions (that is, prehensions of God’s initial aim for that particular occasion) related to its present self-creation and future impact.

Griffin asserts that variability in the nature of divine influence is the foundation of what many religious traditions have described as dramatic revelations of God’s presence. Nevertheless, the impact of God’s initial aim in the self-creation of each actual entity is conditioned by creaturely freedom, the laws of nature, and the impact of the environment.

From this perspective, divine action is congruent with naturalistic explanations of causal relatedness.

Philosophical theology and paranormal experiences. One of Griffin’s most significant contributions to philosophical theology is his belief in the existence of paranormal experiences. Griffin believes that Whitehead’s metaphysical system provides the foundation for accepting the existence of paranormal experiences by recognizing the reality of (1) non-sensory perception (perception in the mode of causal efficacy); (2) influence at a distance; and (3) mind-body interconnectedness. According to Griffin, Whitehead’s assertion that metaphysics must include non-rational as well as rational experiences suggests that paranormal as well as mystical experiences provide evidence for metaphysical reflection.

Following Whitehead, Griffin asserts that just as persons have direct experiences of religious and aesthetic realities, they also have direct experiences, at an unconscious level, of other minds. Theistic naturalism suggests, accordingly, that paranormal experiences and experiences of the divine are ubiquitous, even though they are seldom brought to consciousness. What are typically described as paranormal experiences are not anomalous, but involve the awareness or utilization of what is already present in every human’s experience.

3. Relationship to Whitehead’s Metaphysics

Griffin has explored a number of new directions in process theology and philosophy, especially in terms of its relationship to constructive post-modern metaphysics, the interplay of religion and science, and the theological interpretation of paranormal experiences. Griffin’s interpretation of Whiteheadian metaphysics and epistemology provides the basis for affirming what has often been neglected, or dismissed, by philosophers and theologians—action at a distance that makes intelligible the influence of prayer and the possibility of paranormal experiences; naturalistic theism that provides a bridge between faith and science and provides an explanation for dramatic revelations of God that are congruent with the laws of nature; and mind-body interdependence that provides a philosophical undergirding for the role of the mind and spirituality in shaping personal health and well-being. Griffin has advanced Whiteheadian philosophical theology by elaborating on Whitehead’s understanding of divine activity as persuasive and contextual, especially as it relates to the problem of evil, naturalistic theism, and mystical and paranormal experiences.


[1] Griffin’s critique and constructive alternative to modern philosophy and theology is found in a number of his works, in particular, God and Religion in the Postmodern World (1989c); Varieties of Postmodern Theology, written with Joseph Holland and Will Beardslee (1989b); Two Great Truths: A Synthesis of Scientific Naturalism and Christian Faith (2004); Reenchantment without Supernaturalism: A Process Philosophy of Religion (2001).

Works Cited and Further Readings

1. Authored books

1973. A Process Christology (Philadelphia, Westminister). Reprinted in 1990 with new preface (Lanham MD, University Press of America).

1976. God, Power and Evil: A Process Theodicy (Philadelphia, Westminster). Reprinted in 2004 with new preface (Louisville, Westminster John Knox Press).

1989a. (with H. Smith). Primordial Truth and Postmodern Theology (Albany, SUNY Press).

1989b. (with W. Beardslee and J. Holland). Varieties of Postmodern Theology (Albany, SUNY Press).

1989c. God and Religion in the Postmodern World (Albany, SUNY Press).

1991. Evil Revisited: Responses and Reconsiderations (Albany, SUNY Press).

1993. (with J.B. Cobb Jr., M. Ford, P. Gunter, and P. Ochs). Founders of Constructive Postmodern Philosophy: Pierce, James, Bergson, Whitehead, and Hartshorne (Albany, SUNY Press).

1997. Parapsychology, Philosophy, and Spirituality: A Postmodern Exploration (Albany, SUNY Press).

1998. Unsnarling the World-knot: Consciousness, Freedom, and the Mind-Body Problem (Berkeley and Los Angeles, University of California Press).

2000. Religion and Scientific Naturalism: Overcoming the Conflicts (Albany, SUNY Press).

2001. Reenchantment without Supernaturalism: A Process Philosophy of Religion (Ithaca, Cornell University Press).

2004. The New Pearl Harbor: Disturbing Questions about the Bush Administration and 9/11 (Northampton MA, Olive Branch Press).

2004. Two Great Truths: A New Synthesis of Scientific Naturalism and Christian Faith (Louisville, Westminster John Knox Press).

2005. The 9/11 Commission Report: Omissions and Distortions (Northampton MA, Olive Branch Press).

2006. (with J.B. Cobb Jr., R. Falk, and C. Keller. 2006. Evil Empire: Turn Around America (Louisville, Westminister John Knox Press).

2. Edited books

1977a. (with Thomas Altizer). John Cobb’s Theology in Process (Philadelphia, Westminster).

1977b. (with John. B. Cobb Jr.). Mind In Nature (Washington DC, University Press of America).

1978. (with Donald Sherburne). Process and Reality: Corrected Edition (New York, Free Press).

1988a. The Reenchantment of Science: Postmodern Proposals (Albany, SUNY Press).

1988b. Spirituality and Society: Postmodern Visions (Albany, SUNY Press).

1988c. Physics and the Ultimate Significance of Time: Bohm, Prigogine, and Process Philosophy (Albany, SUNY Press).

1989. Archetypal Process: Self and Divine in Whitehead, Jung, and Hillman (Evanston, Northwestern University Press).

1990. Sacred Interconnections: Postmodern Spirituality, Political Economy, and Art (Albany, SUNY Press).

1991. (with Joseph Hough). Theology and the University: Essays in Honor of John B. Cobb (Albany, SUNY Press).

1993. (with Richard Falk). Postmodern Politics for a Planet in Crisis: Policy, Process, and Presidential Vision (Albany, SUNY Press).

1996. (with Sandra Lubarsky). 1996. Jewish Theology and Process Thought (Albany, SUNY Press).

2005. Deep Religious Pluralism (Louisville, Westminster John Knox).

Author Information

Bruce G. Epperly
Professor of Practical Theology and Director of Continuing Education
Lancaster Theological Seminary
Lancaster, PA 17603, USA

How to Cite this Article

Epperly, Bruce G., “David Ray Griffin (1939–2022)”, last modified 2008, The Whitehead Encyclopedia, Brian G. Henning and Joseph Petek (eds.), originally edited by Michel Weber and Will Desmond, URL = <http://encyclopedia.whiteheadresearch.org/entries/bios/scholarly-legacy/david-ray-griffin/>.