“…the future is truly open, and that means that there is no assurance that human beings will avoid all those means now becoming available to them to destroy themselves. The danger is real, and an attitude of confidence that God will prevent the worst horrors is irresponsible. The God who ‘permitted’ Auschwitz will permit anything the creatures choose to do. God is not another agent alongside the creatures. God acts only in them and through them. But the fact that the future is truly open also means that self-destruction is not inevitable. God does act in and through the creatures. The openness of the future does not mean simply that it is now unpredictable because of the complexity of the factors or because an element of chance enters it. The future is much more radically open. That which has never been may yet be. What has been until now does not exhaust the realm of possibilities, and because of God some of these yet unrealized possibilities act as effective lures for their embodiment. God offers to us opportunities to break out of our ruts, to see all things differently, to imagine what has never yet been dreamed. God works to open others to respond to the new visions and to implement them. Insofar as we allow God to do so, God makes all things new. Thus God is the ground of our hope.” – John B. Cobb, Jr.
Follow me down this rabbit-hole:
Think of your life as a series of successive, momentary experiences. In each present moment we are faced with innumerable influences that contribute to what we do with the moment we are currently experiencing. The past is one of these influences. In other words, decisions you’ve made in the past have an obvious effect on your present experience. For example, if in a series of recently past momentary experiences I decided to walk into my kitchen, then in my present moment of experience I cannot choose to climb a tree. The options available to me in the present moment are, to an extent, determined by decisions I’ve made in the recent past.
Another influence on our present moment of experience is our environment. Let us return to the example I used above. The fact that I find myself in my kitchen in the present moment (as a result of previous decisions) means that I am encountering a number things that are unique to my kitchen (i.e. the fridge, the dirty dishes that are piling up on the counter, my roommate who happens to be in the kitchen as well, etc.). As I take in my immediate surroundings, certain options become available to me in the present moment: I can choose to open the fridge to find a snack, I can choose to clean the dishes or I can choose to start up a conversation with my roommate, for example.
The language of Incarnation can be utilized to help us understand how the influences of the past and our environment are related to our present moment of experience. Essentially, Incarnation is the idea of one thing being present in another thing. Is this not what’s going on in each present moment of experience? Indeed, as we remember our past and take in our environment, these influences become a part of, or are incarnated in, our present moment of experience.
Let us imagine that these two influences (which are really more than two influences for the past is comprised of multiple decisions that are each, in their own way, influencing the present just as our environment contains a seemingly infinite amount of stimuli that each have an effect on the present moment) are the only influences that contribute to our present moment of experience. It would seem that these influences would have a limiting effect on my present moment of experience. To return, once again, to our example: my past decisions that have led me to my kitchen do not allow me, in my present moment of experience, to choose tree climbing because there are no trees in my kitchen. Similarly, my options for the present moment are limited to some sort of interaction with the various “things” that are in my kitchen (my fridge, the dishes, my roommate, etc.). It would almost seem that these two influences determine what I do with my present moment of experience. Could not the decision that I choose to make in the present moment be predicted with certainty by someone who had an absolute knowledge of the influences of my past and my immediate environment?
Our intuition would have us answer this question in the negative. Despite the overwhelming influence that our past and our environment has on what we do in the present moment, we still sense a certain level of autonomy and freedom to create something new in the present moment.
Why is this?
The answer lies in the fact that there is something else that is influencing us in each present moment of experience, namely, the open future.
In each present moment of experience the future is presented to us as a number of potential options for what we can do with our present moment. These potential options serve as influences in their own right on us as we decide how to actualize our present moment of experience.
I’ve come to understand God as the one who presents us with these options for the future in each new moment. More needs to be said here, however. Not only does God present us with options for each successive moment of experience, but God lures us towards the options that would lead to the most zest and adventure in that particular moment of experience. Thus, we could say that God is the one who keeps the present from merely collapsing into a reconfiguration of past decisions. In other words, God is that which allows for novelty or creative transformation in each present moment. When I find myself in the kitchen in my apartment I am presented with a number of options for the future, some of which are more creative and adventurous than others. God’s aim would be to have me choose one of these more adventurous or creative options.
Once again, the language of Incarnation becomes useful at this point. We could say that God becomes incarnate in each moment of our experience to the extent that we choose the more creative or zesty options that are presented to us in each moment.
So let’s bring this home.
In this season of Advent we remember the coming of Jesus, the one who responded fully to the lure of God in each moment. The language of Incarnation is absolutely appropriate when it comes to describing what took place with the person of Jesus for as he was responsive to the call of God in each moment God was made manifest in his loving embrace of those he encountered. When we look at Jesus we see God.
As we’ve discovered, however, Incarnation is much bigger than what happened 2,000 years ago with Jesus. In fact, Incarnation is happening in many different ways in each of our moments of experience. There are many different “things” occupying each one of our successive moments of experience (the past, our environment, the lure of the future which includes the aim of God). May this season of Advent remind us that God is attempting to be made manifest in each new moment of our own experience. As Christ was born some 2,ooo years ago, so may he be be born again this day in us.
“We are celebrating the feast of the Eternal Birth which God the Father has borne and never ceases to bear in all eternity…. But if it takes not place in me, what avails it? Everything lies in this, that it should take place in me.” – Meister Eckhart
Divine omnipotence isn’t my favorite doctrine.
Omnipotence literally means “all powerful.” Of course, if God has all the power then that means that there is no power left for us to have. Thus, everything that happens is the result of God’s action. When we read the newspaper each day we are reading about what God has decided to do with the world as of late. All of history is the result of God’s will–even the bad stuff.
Sin, too, must find its origin in God. This may sound absurd to some but, believe it or not, many believe this. What is more, those who hold this view still want to suggest that God blames sin on humanity (and will punish most of us in hell because of it) despite the fact that he predetermined it to happen in the first place. This is, of course, paradoxical (and disturbing).
It’s important that we ask ourselves at this point: Is omnipotence actually a biblical doctrine?
Well, it is impossible to deny that there are some passages in the Bible that would seem to indicate that God is indeed in absolute control of everything. A biblical case can be made for divine omnipotence. However, it is important for us to note that the Bible does not speak with one voice on this issue.
I would suggest that there are many more passages that suggest that God calls someone to do something and then allows them to respond however they wish. The story of Jonah could be employed as an example. God desires Jonah to preach to Nineveh and Jonah initially refuses to do so. Moreover, it seems that as the scriptural narrative progresses we see more and more that God acts persuasively rather than coercively. Paul’s understanding of the Spirit of Christ is that he lives in us. That is, God acts from within his creatures by means of persuasion rather than from without by means of coercion.
A great deal of our understanding of God as omnipotent comes from one of the names of God that we find in the Old Testament, namely, “God Almighty” or “the Almighty.” This title shows up quite frequently in Job. However, it is important that we realize that this title is a translation of the Hebrew title “El Shaddai” which is actually a proper name. El Shaddai is understood by scholars to mean “the breasted one” and has no connotations of omnipotence or almighty-ness. This proper name began to take on connotations of omnipotence when translators of the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures) translated it as “Cosmocrator” which means “ruler of the universe.” Our understanding of God as “the Almighty” is the result of this (mis)translation.
Update: Given a few of the comments that resulted from this post I thought it would be worth noting that what we find in the LXX is the beginning of the shift that led to us understanding “El Shaddai” as implying omnipotence. As Silas and Nicholas pointed out, the Latin Vulgate comes close to universalizing the improper translation of El Shaddai. Due to the fact that our translations rely quite heavily on the tradition of Jerome’s translation, we find this same mistake in many of our Bibles today.
Unfortunately, “the Almighty” has become our most common title for God in our liturgies despite the fact that it is a title and, I would suggest, an idea that is foreign from the biblical witness.
Okay but can’t the problem of omnipotence be solved by saying that God has chosen to limit himself?
Many would suggest that this is indeed the appropriate response. By affirming God’s self-limitation one can hold on to divine omnipotence without chucking human free will out the window. God technically has all the power, proponents of this view would say, but for the sake of loving relationship with his creation he has chosen to limit himself.
There are two problems with this.
First, this response doesn’t adequately deal with the problem of evil. If we say that God technically has the power to stop evil but refuses to do so then we must ask why he would do such a thing. We would certainly expect another human being to put a stop to violence and evil if it is within their power to do so. Should we not expect the same of God?
Secondly, this question assumes that God acts coercively. As we noted above, it seems like the overall thrust of the biblical evidence would suggest that God works on us internally in such a way that does not override our capacity to make decisions.
It seems better to me to suggest that no event is the result of a single cause. Instead, there are many causes to each event and God is one of those causes. What God works to do is to empower us, to liberate us, to teach us, to guide us, to persuade us to choose the good in each moment. How we choose to respond to these divine nudges is, ultimately, up to us.
So is God all powerful? Yes and no.
No: if our understanding of God’s power is that it is coercive then I do not believe God is all powerful.
Yes: God is infinitely persuasive and persuasion, I would suggest, is more powerful than coercion.
*The above is a summary of a portion of John Cobb’s lecture entitled Process Theology: An Introductory Introduction which can be found towards the bottom of this list of lectures.
As I stated in a previous post, Pinnock’s main critique of process theology is that it is more committed to the philosophical presuppositions of Whitehead and Hartshorne than it is to the biblical text itself. I’m on board with him. I’m not in a place where I am going to favor modern philosophical metaphysics over the biblical metaphors and imagery. Indeed, I’m realizing that nearly all of the implications that I affirmed out of a process-relational theology can be affirmed within the openness view:
Whereas process theology understands existence in terms of being in relationship with an “other” and therefore sees God and matter existing in some sort of eternal dualism, open theology affirms creation out of nothing based not on Gen. 1, but instead on passages like Hebrews 11:3. God does not need an “other” to exist relationally because he exists in perfect community within himself (a point that Pastor Brian graciously emphasized in response to my first post on this subject). Open theology is inherently trinitarian in this respect. All this to say, there is nothing in open theology’s understanding of creation that would rule out theistic evolution which is a main concern for me.
I’ve already mentioned that open theology is founded on the notion of God as primarily loving and relational. Therefore, one does not need to be a process theologian to avoid the disgusting assumption that God has predetermined everything making us merely automatons with only a “perceived” freedom.
What’s more, understanding sin as harm or violence really comes out of one’s reading of the commands of Jesus. A serious reading of each command through the lens of the harm ethic yields positive results. Again, process theology is not needed at this point.
Panentheism is the only aspect of process theology that cannot be affirmed by open theism since open theism holds to a strict ontological difference between God and his creation. I hold to what is known as Christian panentheism which still distinguishes between God and creation but understands all of creation to be infused with the creative activity or energy of God. This understanding of God’s relationship to the world is popular in Eastern Orthodoxy. The language of panentheism is helpful in articulating the imminence of God as well as our dependence on his continued creative activity. It also is helpful in the ecological conversation. If God is as intimately involved in the workings of the cosmos as panentheism holds then we ought to think twice about the way that we interact with the planet. This is, I suppose, a small departure from strict open theism, however, for the reasons I articulated above I’ve sort of excused the departure.
I suppose what I’m getting at is that at this point in my journey open theology is more attractive to me than process theology.
However, the most stinging critique of open theology from a process perspective is its failure to “fully” deal with the problem of evil. It must be mentioned here:
Process theology limits God’s power to strictly persuasive which means that he can never act unilaterally. In other words, God’s only hands are our own hands. God can only act in the world by persuading us to pursue the good in all things. Limiting God to only persuasive power makes us, as opposed to God, responsible for most evil in the world (natural evils happen independently in process thought as a result of the interdependence of creation). Evil exists because humans fail to respond to God’s wooing towards a more loving, peaceful reality. Although it does not take the biblical narrative seriously, this is the single most attractive part of process theology for me right now because of its ability to deal with evil. Open theology, on the other hand, although still affirming God as primarily persuasive, sees God as possessing the ability to act unilaterally or with coercion (which is why open theism can still affirm miracles–understood as a break in the natural order of things caused by God’s intervention). For the sake of love God has chosen to limit his power so that he can engage in meaningful, loving relationships but the power to coerce still exists in God within the open view.
Process theology’s critique follows logically:
“If we believe that God is all-powerful we are driven against all our best values and common sense (whether we mean to or not) to argue that rape, famine, plague, child abuse, and cancer ultimately must be good in God’s eyes or else God would have prevented them. At the very best, we are driven to say that it is good for God to allow us to rape, starve, abuse, sicken, enslave, drug, and destroy ourselves and each other in the name of freedom. We are forced by the old idea of God’s power to say that what is morally right for us (protecting the innocent, healing the sick) is morally wrong for God to do (except one time in ten million when God graciously performs a miracle)” (Mesle 22).
This, as I noted above, is a tough critique to swallow. Open theology does not explicitly have an answer when it comes to understanding why God allows evil to occur if he could technically stop it. The two philosophical alternatives, however, are not really options for me given the witness of Scripture. Classical theism sees God as the author of evil since he predetermines everything. Process theology limits the power of God so that he is not culpable.
What can be said at this point is that we are not the only ones to have struggled through this difficult question. Pinnock says it well: “I am forced to say that God has made a commitment to the creation project that constrains his actions. The positive side of it for me is that I line up with Israel’s counter-testimony, which bombards God with questions–How long, God, will you hide your face? Why do you stand far off? Where are you when we need you?” (149). These are questions asked by a community who understands that their God is powerful enough to intervene but for some reason is not. What we can learn from Israel’s relentless questions and the fact that we find them in our canon of Scripture is that God approves of his people asking him difficult questions. In our apparent confusion and disillusionment, God invites us to wrestle with him. There is some solace here.
In an attempt to better understand the conversation between process theology and open theology I’ve undertaken a bit of a reading project. The plan is to finish Clark Pinnock’s Most Moved Mover: A Theology of God’s Openness before tackling C. Robert Mesle’s Process Theology: A Basic Introduction. I’ll be blogging thoughts, interesting findings, struggles and questions along the way. Here’s some interesting stuff to get things started:
“At least since creation, the divine life has been temporally ordered. God is inside not outside time. He is involved in the thick of, and is not above, the flow of history” (32).
It’s a common assertion, especially when talking about matters that have to do with the future, that God exists outside of time. This saying is usually employed in order to support the idea that God could certainly know the future because time is something only experienced by the created order. I’m reminded of an analogy that C.S. Lewis gives in Mere Christianity (which, coincidentally, I am reading right now for my Classics in Religious Literature course–yay for integration!). Essentially, Lewis asks his readers to imagine writing a book in which you write the following: “Mary laid down her work; next moment came a knock at the door!” For Mary, who lives in the imaginary story world, the knock comes directly after she puts down her work. You, as the author of the book, could choose to wait hours or even days to choose to write about Mary actually answering the door. You exist outside of the imaginary story world that’s been created just as God exists outside of time. Another analogy that is often employed is the parade analogy: we are in the middle of the parade marching forward in a linear progression. We know where we have come from and we know where we are presently at in the parade route but the future remains yet to be discovered. God on the other hand is said to be represented by a woman (read as intentional feminist plug) who is watching the parade from the top of a tall building, able to see where the parade has started, is at, and will finish, all at the same time.
What I like about Pinnock’s attempt to bring God back into time (beside the fact that I think he remains faithful to the Scriptural narrative which tells the story of a God who always acts within history) is that his understanding is much more practical and experiential. Even if God were outside of time, we can only ever experience him in time. What use is a theology that imagines a God with certain characteristics that we never actually experience as temporal human beings?
Here’s one more thought:
“In tradition, God is thought to function primarily as a disembodied spirit but this is scarcely a biblical idea. For example, Israel is called to hear God’s word and gaze on this glory and beauty. Human beings are said to be embodied creatures created in the image of God. Is there perhaps something in God that corresponds with embodiment? Having a body is certainly not a negative thing because having a body makes it possible for us to be agents. Perhaps God’s agency would be easier to envisage if he were in some way corporeal. Add to that the fact that in the theophanies of the Old Testament God encounters humans in the form of a man. They indicate that God shares our life in the world in a most intense and personal manner. For example, look at the following texts. In Exodus 24:10-11 Moses, Aaron, Nadab, Abidu and seventy of the elders of Israel went up Mount Sinai and beheld God, as they ate and drank. Exodus 33:11 tells us that ‘the Lord used to speak to Moses face to face, as one speaks to a friend.’…Add to that the fact that God took on a body in the incarnation and Christ has taken that body with him into glory. It seems to me that the Bible does not think of God as formless” (34).
There’s a lot that could be said about the implications of this but, to be honest, it’s past my bed time so I’ll leave it at this: If Pinnock’s observation teaches us anything it is that we are really good at reading our understanding of God, in this case, his lack of embodiment (which is something that we’ve inherited from our ancient Greek friends), into the text rather than letting the Bible’s language and imagery inform us. This is certainly the reason why even the thought of imagining God with a body is so shocking to many of us (it was for me, at least). Oh, they joys of biblical theology!