Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Rethinking the Omni-God

[This post concentrates mainly on rethinking our view of God by pointing out the differences between traditional theism and biblical theism.  Biblical theism has a tendency to seem particularly anthropomorphic, but I think it is a much less problematic view than traditional theism.  In another post, I will show how process theology deals with the anthropomorphism of Biblical theism while retaining its basic intuitions much better than traditional theism.]

It's time we all shed our notion of a Greek male deity that we have inherited from the Christian tradition (heavily influenced by Greek philosophy in the early centuries of the church) and reclaim a more Hebrew image of God like that of Jesus.  The traditional view of God that prevails amongst Christians today is the omni-view of God - you know what I'm talking about: omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient.  The omni's tend to imply stereotypically masculine and static ideas about God like impassibility, meaning that God is not affected by the world, and immutability, meaning that nothing about God ever changes.  The ideal male for ancient and modern sensibilities was detached, unaffected, controlling, and exercising significant power over others. Never mind the biblical picture of a genderless God who nevertheless shows motherly qualities alongside of fatherly ones; never mind the biblical picture of a God who experiences all sorts of emotions and feelings in response to the world; and never mind the equally biblical picture of a God who changes 'his' mind in response to what are apparently surprising events in the world for God's own experience of it.  Seriously, just re-read the Old Testament and you will see this more dynamic picture of the motherly-fatherly God all over the place!

But wait a minute...if God changes God's mind in response to genuinely new events in the world, doesn't that call into question God's omniscience? Yes it does, at least in the traditional sense of a God who exists outside of time and therefore sees all times simultaneously.  The biblical view of God is of one who journey's in history with 'her' people, experiencing their joys and sufferings in solidarity.  Because God's mind sometimes changes in response to events in the bible, we see a picture of a God who does not know the future exhaustively.  As such, we need to qualify omnipresence too: even though God is truly present everywhere in the world, God is not simultaneously present to all the times of history (past, present, and future).  Rather, God perfectly remembers the entire past, is fully aware of everything that happens in the present, but does not know the future because it does not yet exist even for God.  So is God eternal?  That depends on what you mean by eternal.  Most people understand that to mean that God is outside of time, unaffected by history.  In this sense, no, God is not eternal.  While eternal can (and should) be redefined, for the sake of present purposes we can say that God is everlasting.  God will certainly never die, forget the past, or stop being loving - but God is temporally affected and involved in the processes of history.

As for the idea omnipotence, that God can do whatever God wants in the world, I think this needs to be called into question as well for two reasons: first, it goes against God's nature as love; second, because omnipotence creates impossible problems for evil in the world (what philosophers call "theodicy").  I will discuss these below: 

1) If God's essence is really love, as 1 John 4 most explicitly claims, then God must always provide freedom for his creation and must not act coercively on it.  To ever deny freedom to creation or coerce it in any way would be a denial of God's nature as love - something God, by definition, cannot actually do.  Biblical love in the fullest sense means that God loves the world in spite of its poor decisions to go against God's call (agape), that God loves the world by enhancing its already existing value that the world has brought forth (eros), and that God loves the world by cooperating alongside of it to promote overall well-being (philia).  This all adds up to a God who acts persuasively in the world, not coercively intervening from outside, interrupting the freedom of the world at any point to do as God so desires.  God patiently and always works in, with, and alongside of the world to achieve the divine vision for the future (the kingdom of God).  I will flesh out the fuller implications of that another time, but note that I do not think this rules out the possibility of surprising things happening in the world through persuasive divine action, such as the historical likelihood that Jesus really healed some people.  Yes, the bible envisions a God who is quite powerful, I agree (although I admit to being skeptical of many of the more fantastical stories in the bible, particularly on historical grounds).  But I do not think the God we see in the bible is really all powerful. With a closer reading, the God of the bible is limited by history, human freedom, and 'his' own nature as love.

2) If my previous argument is correct, then we should be thankful that God is not really omnipotent.  The classic philosophical problem that omnipotence raises (theodicy) is the following: if God is all powerful and truly good, why is there so much senseless evil in the world?  Unless God's goodness has no actual parallel to what humans mean by good - which would mean we should stop saying that God is in fact good because it is meaningless for us to say so - then God's failure to use his absolute power to stop what are clearly senseless and horrific evils (rape, genocide, etc) makes God actually complicit in evil. Many argue that everything in world history is part of God's plan and will. We have already seen that God does not know the future exhaustively, so no, everything that happens is not part of God's plan.  Additionally, to argue that things like rape or genocide are ever willed by God is morally unacceptable (to put it mildly).  The God revealed by the crucified Jesus is apparently a suffering God, one who redemptively suffers in solidarity with every victim of history's disasters.

Now, I turn my case of arguing against omnipotence over to one of my favorite theologians John Cobb, who points out that coercive power is not really powerful at all.  We need to re-think power in relational terms as persuasive rather than coercive.

 

Explore these ideas further:

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