DON CUPITT

 

Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)


DENNIS NINEHAM

 

... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)


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Head to Head
Omnipotence

 Like many of the traditional Christian doctrines which are generally seldom questioned by the average person is that which says that God, if God wants to, can do anything. One result is that Jesus, who is thought of by Christians as God incarnate, could obviously do miracles during the span of his short life. Mick and Rick discuss here some of the problems which arise from this teaching, suggesting some possible ways of tackling those problems.
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Mick
As I look through theology, I find a strange reluctance to discuss the Christian doctrine of God�s omnipotence. It seems to me that the teaching is widely perceived as raising intractable problems - and perhaps for this reason theologians tend to skip over it as a meaningful issue. 

But the ordinary person in the pew (if there is such a creature) no doubt retains a notion that God is all-powerful (omni-potent). In all the puzzling contradictions of life, and despite all the tragedies with which we are afflicted, God remains a person who could as it were wave a magic wand and fix the suffering which plagues our lives. For others, however, God�s omnipotence provides an easy exit from the trials of faith: for if God can fix things and in fact doesn�t, then we are entirely justified either in dismissing the divine as irrelevant or denying the existence of a supreme being.

Early Christian attempts to resolve the problem (technically called theodicy) was to propose that two principles rule the universe. Good things come from God, while bad things come from an anti-God, a wicked power of darkness. We unfortunate humans must choose between the two - but even if we choose the God principle, the power of evil still impacts our lives and we suffer accordingly. Needless to say, this apparently simple solution has long since been dismissed as heretical.

More recently in the long history of Christian thought a similarly ancient idea has revived. It proposes that although God is theoretically all-powerful, in practice God�s power is limited. In other words, God has voluntarily given up unlimited power by creating a universe the operating of which not even God can change without un-making what has been created.

I wonder how this idea strikes you, Rick.

Rick
As an �ordinary person in the pew� I sense the concept of omnipotence is, as you suggest, problematic to a degree it may have no relevance to contemporary Christian thought. I say this because invoking omnipotence often leads to absurd logic. For instance, can God create an iron weight too heavy for Him to lift?  Other similarly banal propositions are frequently put forth.

Considerations of omnipotence apply chiefly to deities. The only mortal to which it could be applied is Jesus Christ. Because He is the Son of God He putatively has the  power of His heavenly father.

What can we learn from Jesus about the exercise of His power? In His temptation in the wilderness by the devil (Mathew 4:1-11) when the devil told him to cast himself down from the pinnacle of a temple, Jesus said, �You shall not tempt the Lord your God.�

Thus, by imputing omnipotence to God we may be tempting Him or setting Him up as it were. We are tempting Him to ameliorate all human problems even to the point of violating the principles of the cosmos He ordained. It seems to me not a stretch to claim that God has integrity and consistency. Who are we mere mortals to judge God�s use of power? If He does not do our bidding, do we have grounds thereby to dismiss the reality of His power or His very existence? That would be hubris in the extreme.

Mick
You have hit upon an aspect of the omnipotence doctrine which I think is difficult for most of us. That God is omnipotent is a doctrine vigorously touted by a vast majority of Christians, so we must take it seriously. We must also therefore take seriously any claim that God could, if God so wishes, grant any prayer, however apparently preposterous in terms of the way the creation normally operates. When a person prays earnestly, with great faith, for a miracle which contradicts the normal operation of nature must we not allow the possibility that such a prayer could be answered? I wonder if we can rightly dismiss this possibility as of no relevance.

For if God can resurrect a man after he has died, is it not also possible that God has the power to heal any sickness, or right any wrong, or suspend any so-called �law� of physics? And if miracles are possible, can God still be called good if God refuses to do good, especially when a miracle might prevent or cure (for example) appalling suffering of innocents? What are we to make of intercession if God is powerless in some circumstances? Does not a God who created nature red in tooth and claw, and then stands back from the pools of blood, become a sort of demon?

Hubris or not, I find it difficult to the point of impossibility to think of God as intimately involved in the operation of the world and yet standing back from what we experience as its negative aspects. The contradiction is too great for me.

Rick
I agree with much you say about God�s apparent unreliability in answering prayer or cleaning up the world�s problems. On that basis you might well consider Him a demon. Yet for thousands of years many people have clung to their religious beliefs and trusted in God�s ultimate beneficence despite untold unanswered prayers and continuing evil in the world. That empirical fact must tell us something about the resiliency of faith in God. They trust God�s wisdom in all things. It is a paradox without an easy explanation.

It seems believers understand that God�s inscrutable wisdom may frequently trump their expectations. Thus, considerations of omnipotence do not appear decisive in their belief systems. In that sense I consider omnipotence to be irrelevant. It may be important but not determinate.

You seem to suggest that God does not answer our petitions. In my former life as a physician I witnessed many events that could be called miracles. Certainly the patients and family thought they were. You might counter that these so-called miracles were simply coincidences, mere chance. You may say so but you could be wrong.

In these cases I see no need to invoke suspension of natural laws in their achievement. They occurred because of the confluence of natural forces appropriately directed by physicians and technicians. In this way I see the hand of God influencing the outcome without the violation of natural law.

A key word to this discussion is trust. It is trust that effaces all contradictions and paradoxes of God�s activity in the world. We cannot and ought not tempt or test God. To have a durable relationship with Him we must simply trust God.

Mick
Yours is certainly one way - and perhaps a good and reasonable way - of preserving the long-standing Christian orthodoxy that God is omnipotent. I suggest, however, that your proposed trust in God is a way of having your cake and eating it (omnipotence is �important but not determinate�). You hang onto the teaching that benevolence is of God�s essence; and at the same time you neutralise the theodicy problem even when benevolence appears to have left the party.

My concern is with incongruence and trust. Let�s get clear about God. As I understand it, fundamental to Christian teaching is the notion that God can�t be described. To use technical language, God has no attributes. We use the word �God� for that which is absolutely other, infinitely beyond our comprehension. In short, we can�t know God as we know a good friend or spouse, or as we know things about the natural world.

So when we apply attributes to God we do so to meet our own needs. This is so when attributing fatherhood, or love, or cruelty or anything else to God. It is we who fill the word �God� with metaphors. Or, to put it another way, we know God only through the natural order from which we derive attributes. We know the Creator (an attribute) through the creation. In particular, Christians claim to know God through the person of Jesus of Nazareth. (I suppose one could say that Jesus is a primary Christian metaphor for God, just as Mohammed is for Muslims.)

Be that as it may, I must press you further. It is clear that the attribute of omnipotence leads to difficult if not fatal clash with other important attributes we apply to God (caring, loving, benevolent and so on). You seem to acknowledge this. Yet you are apparently advising me to maintain incongruent metaphors. Now, I don�t much trust incongruent people - that is, those who appear to be one thing and are actually another; who say one thing and do another. Do you? And if you don�t, is it reasonable to trust a God (�God is trustworthy�) to whom incongruent attributes (�God is benevolent� and �God allows suffering�) can equally well be applied? Why seek a durable relationship (to use your terms) with such a deity?

Rick
Christianity presents many paradoxes that are difficult to reconcile. The problem of suffering is a significant one. How can we accept God as loving and benevolent when there is so much cruelty and hatred in the world? Can�t God intervene and make all things right?

In our book, Mick-Rick Essays on the Sacred and Profane (Xlibris 2007, pp 11-14) we discussed the subject, �Why does God allow suffering?� I argued, because we have consciousness given by God, there is a personal reference to the myriad injuries imposed on us by our existence in a turbulent world. In order for humankind to be exempt from suffering, we would have to be deprived by the Creator of our consciousness. We would thereby, be reduced to insentient animals like all the others.

I believe God created the cosmos and its governing principles. His integrity will not allow the abrogation of these principles and hence God will not interfere with our consciousness. Thus, I see suffering to be an inescapable aspect of conscious humanity.

I would add, faith in Jesus Christ and his message can provide consolation for our suffering. Additionally, suffering can have a positive, regenerative influence by redirecting life pathways away from sources of suffering where possible.

The words of the Apostle Paul are pertinent to the issue: �We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope.�

As for a proscription on ascribing attributes to God, I thought that was mainly a Hebrew Old Testament concept. �I am who I am,� says YHWH. Since Jesus Christ permits glimpses of the nature of God, the New Testament is a veritable compendium of the attributes of God. I see this as a good thing. How else can we establish a relationship with God if we know nothing about Him? It is one thing to have a proper reverence for the ineffable mystery of God but it is reasonable at the same time to maintain a desire to know Him. You have suggested God is incongruent. This might be an appropriate descriptor of a relationship to a Mafia Don but not to God. God is not a cosmic thug.

In many ways the Christian God presents paradoxes, as we have already delineated. From omnipotence God seems to transform into weakness making it a virtue exemplified by Jesus� statement from the Sermon on the Mount, �Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth�.

 In our discussions my thoughts recur to the importance of trust in God. There is a necessity to submit to God�s wisdom and ultimate goodness. That is the best path to resolving the paradoxes inherent in considering God�s omnipotence. Of course, if one does not believe in God or think He is not approachable, all our discussions are so much nonsense.

Mick
As you know, I am always reluctant to rest with paradoxes. As far as I�m concerned a paradox indicates a shortcoming - perhaps asking the wrong question, perhaps not facing up to an inconvenient answer, and so on.

Like you, I can�t stress enough the importance of trust in relation to God. In my book trust is that attitude to life which acknowledges that I have no final or complete answers, but which leads me to carry on regardless. I don�t say �God is this or that� but rather �I think of God as this or that� and trust that the attributes I choose will serve well.

I try not to use terms for God which are incongruent, since incongruence in people (which is where I get the attribute from) reduces or destroys trust. A �two-faced� God isn�t one that I can simultaneously call �trustworthy�. It seems to me that �omnipotent� and �caring� are likewise incongruent divine attributes - hence the insuperable problems we experience when trying to combine them. If my trust in God is to be maintained, perhaps I must drop one or the other.

I choose to drop the attribute �omnipotent� in relation to God. I do so to preserve what Jesus of Nazareth reaffirmed - that we are all loved regardless of our differences, shortcomings or moral failures. In other words, �God cares for us all� is a more important attribute than �God is all-powerful�. Some may choose to hold the two attributes in some sort of creative tension. But that�s beyond me.

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