A response

All right, here goes a completely inadequate response to the great questions that were asked about my last post.

First, as to Tod’s question about whether this God resembles the George Burns character in Oh, God!, I have no idea. I have not seen the movie in many years; and when I did see it theology and theodicy was not at the forefront of my thinking. Therefore, I couldn’t say, but if someone else has an opinion on that I would love to hear it.

Second, maghretta said the following:

Disinterested caring looks like the work of God to me, and good in the face of evil looks like the powerful work of God.

Do you mean that those actions God takes are suggestive rather than coercive in effect? Or do you mean that the only action God can take without coercive effect is to reveal a possible path of action to us? He can talk to us, but he can't touch us?

As to your comment, I would agree about the latter wholeheartedly. I believe that is what I meant by saying that God’s possibilities are ultimately effective (effective as an alternate way of defining powerful). Good in the face of evil is one of the most powerful acts of human beings, and in effect God. At these times human faith in God’s possibilities are at their most congruent.

As to the former, disinterested caring is an oxymoron to me. How can you care about someone without taking interest in them? It would be a going-through-the-motions-oriented action that, in my humble opinion, would arise from a human possibility rather than God’s ultimate possibility for any given interaction. To be disinterested is in effect not to care about outcomes or the interaction, and while the action may still produce a good outcome, it would not function at its best because the possibility arose from human concern rather than an act that belies the possibilities that God offers at any given moment. Being uninterested in the other is being ultimately concerned with the self. Self-interest is by definition the root of sinful action in most modern and postmodern theologies.

Let me try to move on to your questions. First, whether God’s actions are suggestive or coercive in effect. At first I said yes, but the more I thought about it, I decided I would want you to define suggestive. Even the word suggestive can be understood as coercive. Therefore, I would say that God’s desires are always present in every moment. That given the paths we have taken to get to a certain point, there is a possibility present in any moment that, if chosen would be more revealing of God’s love in the world. Your second question is closer to what I believe I was trying to say by writing about theodicy.

As to whether, God can talk but can’t touch us, my answer is an unsatisfying, it depends. I would describe being touched by God as an internal feeling of congruence with God’s possibilities. Therefore, I would say that we can be touched by God inasmuch as we can live out God’s possibilities of love, care, and respect in the world. However, given human beings penchant for self-interest, God’s ultimately effective reality for most people amounts to talk rather than feeling truly touched by God’s possibilities.

Next, Bad Alice stated and asked the following;

What you are describing sounds very similar to how God was talked about at a Unity Church I used to attend, and in my glancing acquaintance with New Thought. Do you think that evil is purely human--there is no "adversary," Satan, force of evil, etc? I find your ideas very intriguing, but a bit difficult to square with the power of a creator God. If God can be only love, and we are his creation, then how did our ability to do evil things develop? If evil is a byproduct of free-will, then God was able to establish a system in which evil is pretty much inevitable.

I want to begin here with a statement made by David Ray Griffin in God, Power and Evil: A Process Theodicy. This statement is a basic atheistic argument that there is no God.

1. God is a perfect reality (Definition)

2. A Perfect Reality is an omnipotent being (By definition)

3. An omnipotent being could unilaterally bring about an actual world without any genuine evil (By definition)

4. A perfect reality is a morally perfect being. (By definition)

5. A morally perfect being would want to bring about an actual world without an genuine evil (By definition)

6. If there is genuine evil in the world, then there is no God. (Logical conclusion from 1 – 5)

7. There is genuine evil in the world. (Factual statement)

8. Therefore, there is no God. (logical conclusion from 6 – 7)

The result of this logic is that theologians have to work around some of these points if we are to attempt to reconcile our belief in God with the fact of evil in the world. My choice was not to give up the moral goodness of God, and rather redefine how God is powerful. I also do not believe in an “adversary” and I think that our conceptualizations of Satan are more projections resulting from an inability to take responsibility for the evil that we bring about in the world through our actions or inactions as it relates to God’s possibilities. I think that evil is human, through and through, and it is a result of God’s commitment to human freedom. (In July and August of 2005 I wrote a couple of brief ideas about this under the heading of Theological Propositions, little did I know at the time I was beginning a process of internalizing some of the tenets of Process Theology, you can find the posts here, here, here, and here). If God does not coerce then there is the possibility that any given human will not choose God’s effective possibility leading to a less than effective interactivity. Where evil arises, for me at least, is through human self-interest that ultimately breaks the interrelated world that God has created.

Rather than evil being inevitable in God’s established system, I would say that evil was possible in the system established by God, due to a commitment to freewill. With true freewill, God cannot know what possibility we will choose; if God knew, then freewill is in jeopardy and God becomes indictable for the evil in the world. This, for me, would be ultimately antithetical to God’s loving nature. God’s presence in every moment of human history assures that God is able to provide possibilities that would reveal God’s love, care and respect in the world. Humans, on the other hand, have a choice of possibilities and the inability to be perfectly moral in their choices…

This is a huge post, I appreciate it if you stuck it through to the end. I hope it begins to clarify some of the things I was talking about. If not, please question, reframe or rework it and let me know so that we can do it together. Theology is best when not done in a vacuum. Theodicy, which reaches into the depths of human finiteness to understand the infinite, should never be left to one person to try and figure out. Thanks for commenting and making me think more about what I claim...

grace and peace

all-good AND all-powerful?

This is the first edit of something I have been working through over the past few weeks. It is a result of some reading, some questioning, and stepping out into some frightful non-Reformed territory. I realize that it's written structure is not the best. I also realize that my ideas are new only to me, in the sense that they have not been voiced together in this way before now. I also know that God is ultimately a mystery, a vast unexplorable Other. Rather than doctrine, I think these are my hopes about God in a post-Holocaust world.

These thoughts were mine, now they are ours, have at them...

To say that God is all-good, that God’s initial aims for human relatedness are meant to mirror the love, respect and care that God has for humanity, excludes a traditional idea that God is all-powerful. To be all-powerful is to be capable of all possible forms of interaction, forms that run the gamut of good and evil, forms of interactions from freedom to control. Therefore, if God is all-good, that is God is ultimately concerned with interactions that reveal the loving, respectful, and caring nature of God, then God cannot have the power to intentionally inflict pain and suffering, or acts of evil, through human interactions with self, other and the world. God cannot will these types of interactions, because it is beyond God’s absolute loving nature, even though God must ultimately function within a reality where these types of interactions are prevalent due to the inability of humanity to effectively relate God’s aims in their interactions. God’s all-powerfulness, or omnipotence, is limited proactive and reactive interactions that reveal love, respect and care in the world either through a possibility initiated by God or a possibility offered as a reaction to evil acts committed by human beings.

We can say that God is all-good and all-powerful inasmuch as acts of care, respect and love occur when humans interact in such a manner. Such acts reveal the nature and power of God and God’s activity in human history. Moreover, acts of care, respect and love are at their most powerful when they are reactions to or usurpations of acts of evil. God’s power lies in the ability to contrast God’s absolute good nature with the changing landscape of human interactions that ultimately miss an aimed for mark creating an evil result. Any time a human being contrasts an act of evil with an act of love, care or respect, God’s ultimate power and goodness is known and felt. Power has too often been associated with force, coercion or control. We must begin to think of power differently if we wish to apply it to God. Instead, I believe that if we wish to apply the term power to God, then we must begin to define it by God’s ability to act effectively within the parameters of God’s commitment to goodness and human freedom.

Before elaborating further on the effectiveness of God, human freedom must be understood. If God is coercive then human beings have no freedom. Moreover, God’s actions are in the present. The implication of God as the great “I AM” helps us understand how God sees God’s self interacting with humanity. The eternal nature of God is bound to the distinction that God makes for God’s self. God is timeless in as much as time has occurred. God is the God of ancestors, and the God of the moment that occurs for all of humanity. God’s future knowledge is bound to the eschaton, an event that stands outside the scope of human events. The relationship between God’s active possibilities in the present and human freedom to choose whether or not we will listen to these possibilities is troublesome for those who posit God as outside of time. For humans to have freedom, God cannot ordain the choices we make. Moreover, God cannot know which choice we will act upon; to do so is to insinuate that God foreordains evil acts that we commit on a daily basis.

God’s covenant is to continue in relationship with humanity, and God does so be offering pro- and re- active possibilities in order to continue effectively relating to the world through God’s goodness. God is a revealer of possibilities, that is God offers possibilities of interactions leading to loving, respectful, or caring outcomes that mix with the possibilities created through a particular human being’s own creative visions of interactions based on past and present experiences. Thus human freedom is assured, as the human may choose any of the multitudes of possibilities in front of them regardless of the possible outcomes. Moreover, because of God’s eternal relatedness to human history, God continues to offer possibilities related to the choices and experiences of human beings, even sympathizing and/or celebrating the outcomes of interactions.

God’s power is related to the ultimate effectiveness of the possibilities God offers to any particular human being; God can be said to be ultimately powerful because God’s possibilities are ultimately effective. Evil possibilities and actions are the domain of humanity. They are the result of the freedom to interpret a possibility, an inability carry out God’s possibilities or even an intentional ignoring of the possibilities that God offers through any given situation.

beauty and the beast

This is where my current journey begins...

The day after I finished reading Elie Wiesel’s Night I happened upon a picture of Auschwitz in a recent edition of National Geographic magazine. Wiesel’s book was a horrific account of suffering and regret during his internment in the concentration camps of Nazi Germany, and Auschwitz was his home for much of that time. Through his prose, Auschwitz became a surreal place to me, a place where life was denigrated, families torn apart, and faith stolen. This account of the Holocaust made real for me something that I had always thought but never really articulated: that we not only have the power to destroy ourselves, but we also have the capacity to intentionally carry out that destruction. Elie Wiesel’s words sparked my imagination to create mental pictures of that place and time. However, it wasn’t until I came across the photograph that my interest in the problems of theodicy peaked.

I sat in my office and opened the magazine to an article on modern Buddhism. As I flipped from one page to the next Auschwitz suddenly unfolded before my eyes, covering two pages. A red brick gatehouse grew from a serene field of bright green grass. Train tracks, beginning separately, melded into one as they silently worked their way through the gates. Razor wire stretched into the horizon creating a shimmering ominous net. It could have been anywhere though; nothing in that picture gave life to the idea that around one million Jews and prisoners of war died under the watchful eyes of the guards in the gatehouse. It was a threatening picture but it was also mute, telling none of the secrets that lived on the other side of that fence.

There was little silence for me though. Instead, I heard Elie Wiesel’s laments from behind the gate house. I heard him weep and cry out in anguish to God. I could imagine his face, gaunt and vacant, staring out from behind the fence. His words interpreted what I saw, darkening the green grass and filling the blue skies with thick gray ash. The clean lines and vacant tracks became dirty with soot from the haunted trains that entered full and left empty. Wiesel’s voice wasn’t the only one I heard through this picture, because Auschwitz was not alone.

A Buddhist monk sat cross-legged, meditating in the middle of the train tracks; a ghostly shadow shrouded in a black cape, blocking the tracks as he faced the horrors before him. His prominence in the picture brought back memories and childhood visions long since pushed aside. I have always been amazed by the tenacity of nature. Where I lived as a child, huge Oak trees would buckle the sidewalk as they grew and stretched their roots underneath, protesting the restrictions to life imposed by the heavy concrete. In fields long forgotten, flowers and trees grew on the husks of burnt brick buildings, reclaiming the land as their own. In the summer, kudzu, a prolific large-leafed vine would snake its way across unkempt land covering whatever stood in its tracks. To me, the solitary Buddhist grew from the tracks like a black iris blossoming in a polluted river. His presence held back those haunted trains for a moment as he meditated amidst the pain that permeates the soil. I can only guess what his meditations held, but I imagine that suffering, death and cruelty must have ventured through those moments. How could someone sit before this monument to inhumanity and not feel the voices and ghosts that permeate the heavy air? Moreover, to believe that one’s meditations or actions can affect a place is to hope that that place can be redeemed as well.

What I saw in that picture was a small attempt to reclaim the space through reflection on the horrors that we are capable of committing. The monk sat there like a single vine of kudzu creeping along the tracks, growing amidst the atrocities yet not entirely destroying the evidence. His presence, for me, was a stark contrast to Elie Wiesel’s journey within those gates.

What was created by the Holocaust are wounds that will never fully heal. But what I saw in that photograph was a stitch, a small suture that pulled together one corner of an open wound. It was something powerful that closed a miniscule segment of a gaping wound formed by an evil act perpetrated in this world. The monk’s presence to the evil, presence against the evil and cathartic response of meditation created a powerful moment of contrast that held both hope and horror captured in that photograph. For me, his presence contrasted the story and presence of Elie Wiesel created without diminishing his pain and grief.

It is through beauty – through intensely contrasting elements – that we can begin to think about the relationship between Wiesel’s work and the National Geographic photograph. These two artistic mediums, the prose of a survivor and the photograph of a visitor, provide the kind of contrast that opens the doorway to constructing new ways of working with the problem of evil as related to the traditional Christian understandings of a good and all-powerful God. Logic and proofs can only advance the relationship between these three facts (a good God, an all-powerful God, and the presence of evil) of Christian theology so far. Due to their overwhelming contrast, a purely logical proof becomes arguable, eventually leading us to pick sides, often choosing between an ever dwindling God whose power or goodness shrinks under the weight of the problem of evil, or trivializing evil and the pain and suffering of those who have experienced evil through an allegiance to some far off eschatological hope.

grace and peace

Happy New Year

One year; that is how long this fine piece of subjective theological journalism has been out there. One year of writing, of complaining, of observing my life and letting a vastly anonymous world read about it.

In that time, I have move halfway across the country; I became a god-parent to our niece; I have been to Alaska, New York, D.C. Atlanta, Charleston, Morganton, Baltimore, Charlotte, Moab, Houston, and Denver; I have completed one quarter of doctoral work; My wife and I left everyone we know and live in a place where we still only know a few people. It has been a busy year and the next one looks to be about the same.

Over the last month alone several new journeys have arisen in my life. Apart from the travel plans we have (Seattle, New York, Charleston, among the other random places we will probably visit), my professional life is in a state of upheaval.

During my sabbatical and the six weeks I had between fall and winter quarter (a break that is too long in my opinion) I began re-evaluating the theology that I have held dear for many years. This new path of discovery began with two very different experiences. First, I have been working with a professor on an article about pastoral theology, formation and theological education. It will be published in a journal this coming fall and the writing and researching process has been time-consuming and wonderful. Second, I spent about two to three hours a day, Monday through Friday, reading and writing on theodicy and tragedy.

As a result, some of the theological formulations that I have grown comfortable with have been challenged. I was once, and still in some ways am, beholden to Reformed Theology. However, since my encounter with the problems of evil, writings on the Holocaust, and my work with aesthetics and pastoral theology, I have started reading about Process Theology. This, to say the least, has left me reeling for the most part.

Imagine, if you will, you, sitting in a coffee shop. You have no one to talk to, and have occupied my time with reading Elie Wiesel’s Night, an account of his years in Auschwitz. Moreover, You decided to get ahead for your Theodicy and Tragedy course by reading Louise Erdrich’s love medicine, and two other unassigned readings by Elie Wiesel (just so you know, Elie Wiesel is the one who is thought to have coined the term theodicy, which basically means any attempt to reconcile God’s omnipotence and goodness with the prevalence of evil in the world). Moreover, imagine that you just completed a quarter of work where you took all of your creative energy and twisted every theo-experiential notion that you had known to create something new. Finally, imagine that everything you ever thought about God, didn’t work when you finished reading and with your creative energy swirling, you decide find something that does work…

Welcome to my world!

So, I am embarking in this year, this second blog year, on a new theological journey for me as I attempt reconcile what I am learning with what I know. Process theology is a nasty pair of words for some people. Many claim that it is too humanistic and limiting of God’s power to affect the world. As I dive into this new theological pool, I hope to share some of what I am thinking and how it relates to what I have thought in the past. My first posts will reflect some of the thoughts from these past six or so weeks of silence and then we’ll see what happens next. Until then…

grace and peace

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