Monday, August 15, 2016

What Use is God?

What use is God if God can’t or won’t prevent evil from occurring? That’s a question people have been asking for millennia. Theologians and philosophers have done their best offer answers defending God (the term for this is theodicy), but the question keeps arising. It would be easier if Christian theology allowed for the existence of two equally powerful gods, one good and the other evil (dualism). Then evil could be blamed on the evil god, leaving the God of love untainted. Unfortunately, that solution isn’t available to Christians, for like other traditional monotheistic religions, Christians believe that God has no ultimate rival. Therefore, we must look elsewhere for answers.


A seventeenth-century theologian suggested this is “the best possible world,” and so we should accept things as they are. This solution, however, ultimately failed to gain full support. Either God is capable of keeping evil at bay (omnipotent) and fails to do so, or ‘[God is too weak to address evil. If either is true, then why bother with God?

There might be another option, one offered by Tom Oord. As an advocate of open/relational theology, Oord both affirms God’s full ability to act and God’s inability to prevent evil. It’s not a question of divine power; it’s a question of what takes precedence—power or love. Oord chooses love, declaring that love precludes God from acting coercively. If this is true, then a loving God cannot coerce creation into achieving a satisfactory outcome.

Even if God cannot act coercively, this does not mean God does not act in creation. According to Oord, divine agency is marked by God’s partnership with creation itself to achieve healing.

This is why the cross stands at the center of the Christian faith. The cross is the means by which God overcomes evil and brings healing or shalom to creation. As a relational theologian, Oord suggests God works in creation at a deeper level than we usually presume. Indeed, God goes down to the subatomic level to pursue change. At that level of existence, God is busy encouraging the very elements of the universe to work together for the common good.

Oord’s proposal presents a challenge to us. We humans often want God to act directly and visibly in bringing about a desired outcome (overcoming evil). What we want, it seems, is Superman. The God we encounter in Jesus doesn’t appear to work that way. That is troubling! On the other hand, Jesus tells Pilate, his kingdom is not of this world. Therefore, victory over evil will take a different guise than we traditionally expect.

Tom uses the concept of “essential kenosis” to envision God in terms of the “self-giving, others-empowering nature of love.” Because of this radical love “God cannot withdraw, override or fail to provide the freedom, agency, self-organizing and law like regularity” [The Uncontrolling Love of  God, p. 169]. In other words, God provides the opportunity to partner in the work of shalom, but because love defines God, God cannot override this freedom. Despite claims to value freedom on the part of many denizens of this world (especially in places like the United States), I would venture to guess a majority wouldn’t mind a bit of intervention once in a while just to rescue us from our own stupidity!

As we ponder these questions, especially in light of such horrific expressions of evil as demonstrated by the Holocaust, how might the biblical story of the cross provide us with answers? How does the cross overcome evil? We could point to the resurrection, of course, which affirms that evil doesn’t have the last word, but with all due respect to God’s love, why must we reject divine coercive intervention as contrary to love? If God has the power to keep evil at bay, why not use it? Isn’t that loving?

I must admit I’m both attracted to and unsure about this proposal. I affirm the primacy of love. It is a principle which informs nonviolent responses to injustice. At the same time, part of me wants God to intervene directly and set things right. I’m not quite as confident as Oord appears to be that we will respond appropriately to God’s invitation. Still, the proposal makes a lot of sense, especially if we can let go of the need for God to foreknow the future. After all, it’s one thing to prevent something bad happening of which you might have foreknowledge. If you know your product will cause cancer, then you likely will be held liable in a court of law. However, if future acts of evil remain unknown to God until they happen, then God can’t be held liable for preventing them from occurring. Open Theism, such as Oord embraces, allows for an open future, while insisting that God is always at work and will not give up on achieving shalom. Therefore, we can take confidence in God’s determination to work in willing partnership with creation to achieve shalom. Love will always serve as the guide to this work of God. That the future remains open and unknown, even to God, is also true; the future contains unknown risks.

The good news is that, in Oord’s words, God is an “omnipresent spirit.” Therefore, as Paul declared: “If God is for us, who is against us?” (Rom. 8:31 NRSV). I take Paul’s word to mean, in light of Oord’s musings, that God is persistent in pursuing the common good for all creation. Therefore, even in the face of evil, there is reason for God! Indeed, there is reason to be in relationship with this God who seeks to be in relationship with us!

This essay is reposted from Tom Oord's website for the book The Uncontrolling Love of God..  https://uncontrollinglove.com/2016/08/12/what-use-is-god/.  This is one of a series of responses to the book Tom set up.  You may go to the website and offer your thoughts.  

5 comments:

John said...

You wrote:

"As we ponder these questions, especially in light of such horrific expressions of evil as demonstrated by the Holocaust, how might the biblical story of the cross provide us with answers? How does the cross overcome evil? We could point to the resurrection, of course, which affirms that evil doesn’t have the last word, but with all due respect to God’s love, why must we reject divine coercive intervention as contrary to love? If God has the power to keep evil at bay, why not use it? Isn’t that loving?"

This little paragraph touches so many different issues! The presence of what is understood as 'evil' in the world, the role of Jesus' death in addressing such 'evil,' the human desire for divine intervention in the face of human powerlessness, and the meaning we ascribe to God's withholding of divine intervention in the face of our profound desire for it.

At the risk of over simplification I suggest that we not confuse natural disasters on the one hand and the actions of deeply damaged human beings as representative of organized evil in the world. I am deeply committed to the notion that God crated all that is and that in doing so God did not create 'evil', in fact God pronounced Creation as 'good'. Shirley Martinson is always calling me 'Pollyanna' for this optimistic understanding of Creation - I will accept that label.

God will be what God will be, and God will manifest God's self in the world as God wills. Isn't that after all the very name which God shared with Moses - the great "I AM" - does our scripture not begin with this very affirmation? Then why do we persist in imposing on God the requirement that God be what we want God to be, that God be for us whatever we what God to be, and whenever we desire it? We want God to intervene to spare us from the horrors of the moment, and when God doesn't then we are disappointed and confused about the reality of who God is! The problem is that we do not accept God as God has actually revealed God's self to us - God is ineffable - God will be what God will be, not what we want God to be. We need to jettison the notion of God as "omnipresent, omniscient, and omnipotent." These are human constucts, not divine. These characteristics describe a mythical creature, not the God who will be what God will be.

In Jesus we were graced with a view of other aspects of God, compassion, sacrifice, gentleness, non-violence, and love. But not a love which fights against coercive power, but which resists it; not a compassion which compels the magical curing of all human ills, but which models loving kindness and which is deeply affected by the pain of everyone Jesus comes into contact with, from the rich and powerful to the poorest of the poor. A compassion which compels engagement, but rarely intervention, and never coercive intervention.

And in the Cross we see the willingness of God to sacrifice even the life of the Incarnation for benefit of humanity. Divine love comes at Divine cost. From the Crucifixion of Jesus we learn just how far God is willing to go to resist systems of coercive power. How did we Christians ever get to the point of questioning God for God's unwillingness to employ coercive power, even for what we perceive as just ends?

The Cross may be not only a Divine indictment against human systems of violence and power but against Christian theologies which claim the right to invoke the authority and power of God to oppose the very systems God has indicted.




Robert Cornwall said...

John there is much here and I appreciate your reflections.

I think we need to recognize that there is genuine evil in play. Natural disasters are one thing, but for our purposes it is human actions that need to be addressed. There is a desire for God to intervene. We even pray that way, perhaps giving thanks for being spared. But what about the person next door who isn't spared.

Human beings, on the other hand, do have the propensity to act in ways that are contrary to the purposes of God. The traditional charge is that if God is all powerful and God is love, then why doesn't God prevent us from doing what we do? We can offer a free will defense -- that is, God allows for us to do such things -- but is that sufficient, especially when we deal with large scale issues like the Holocaust, America's chattel slavery, Jim Crow, and the like? Tom suggests that because God is love and this love is non-coercive then God must act at a deeper level to encourage us (Process folks speak of the lure) to take a different course. The cross therefore is God's way of calling us to embrace a new way of living, one that is loving and just.

Tom is an Open Theist and as such he doesn't believe that God controls everything, nor that everything is sorted out. That is, the future is open. We can choose to engage with God in a different way of living or not. Our choices impact the future. But let us not forget that evil does lurk in our midst. Indeed, while God created me and declared me to be good, I know that there is a possibility to act differently. I know because I have! That's where I think Richard Beck's book Reviving Old Scratch comes in.

John said...

"Evil in play." Not if by genuine evil you infer an organized force directed at subverting God and misleading humans. Some people are born without the capacity for compassion, some have it traumatically ripped out of them. Their actions and their affect often looks like evil because their actions and affect are so outside the ability of most humans to comprehend, and so dangerous. Other people are born with a propensity to violence. When these two traits combine in a single human being, or in a collection of humans, the horror is compounded. To make matters worse, humans often hide behind groupthink to shield their baser impulses, and such people, concealed within the mob, are happily willing to follow the sociopath who celebrates what they have been too embarrassed to say or do on their own. This is not EVIL, it is corruption, it is the ultimate downside of freewill. This is the source of ethnic cleansing, slavery, Jim Crow, and environmental vandalism.

Humans typically act in their own interest. If such interest is contrary to the revealed will of God, that is not evil, just selfishness, fear, and poor judgment.

That God created me 'good,' and so too the rest of humanity, does not mean that I am incapable of knowingly acting against the revealed purposes of God. Moreover, such contrary action is neither evil nor incited by evil, its manifested just selfishness, fear, and poor judgment. We want to foist this off on "EVIL", perhaps because because such allows us to distance ourselves from our own actions and motivations. But the truth of the matter is that the source of the selfishness, fear, and poor judgment lies within our own hearts. We need to accept that aspect of our persons, and our neighbors, or we will never be able to gain a handle on it. Baser impulses are human, and do not emanate from an evil source.

We need to resist urges to violence, we need to nurture compassion, in ourselves, our children and in our neighbors. We need to learn courage in the face of our fears. And we need to be on guard against groupthink which demonizes the other, and/or embraces violence and/or fails to manifest compassion in all of our decision-making. God offers us a vision of kingdom living, it is within our grasp. We need to turn away from violence and fear, we need to face God and accept the "lure" to embrace compassionate living.

I think that a giant step in this direction is learning to live gratefully, appreciating that all that we have, and all that we are, and even the very thoughts that we think, are a gift from God. When we are grateful we seek to respond in kind.

I cannot help but see the cross as a scandal, the murder of the ultimately innocent person, the execution of the very Incarnation of the Divine. It is an indictment of the worst that I and every other human being is capable of. A martyrdom for which everyone has bloody hands. A reminder that the WAY of the Lord is always non-coercive and non-violent, and that the consequence of coercion and violence is death, of the innocent, and of innocence itself. For me, all of the other metaphors regarding the cross fall away in the face of the Divine indictment.

Finally, I think the "deeper level" at which God operates is through our instinctive compassion. All normally adjusted humans feel compassion at some level. In fact many animals manifest compassion. I think that this capacity is at the core of how God is luring us towards genuine kingdom living.

Robert Cornwall said...

John, when I speak of evil in this way I'm following Walter Wink's understanding of evil as that systemic force that catches us all up in. If we believe, as I do, that there is more to this world than meets the eye (a spiritual dimension to reality), then I believe it's likely that there are spiritual forces at work. I'm confident that God will prevail. I'm not a dualist in this manner, but if we affirm free will, then we have choices in what forces we'll cooperate with. And as we all know it's easy to caught up in the fever of the moment. Good people can be caught up in evil acts, like the Holocaust, as well as America's original sin of racism. We're not born racist, but the spirit of racism certainly is present and we get caught up in it early in life.

John said...

Even the spiritual "forces" are 'of God' so once again they can organize themselves to oppose God.