Rachel Responses

Our friend Rachel Held Evans (podcast with her is here) posted a blog by our own Tripp Fuller that got an amazing response (287 comments at this posting). Tripp responded all day Friday, I did quick responses Saturday and Sunday night. I thought it would it would be fun to post them all here as a conglomeration of ideas that are open for discussion.

Omnipotence:  A Compliment Jesus Wants You to Take Back

I (Tripp) have one important rule to guide my theological thinking: God has to at least be as loving as Jesus.
It seems rather obvious for a Christian, given our confession that Jesus was indeed the ‘image of the invisible God,’ but throughout church history, God, Jesus’ Abba, has been given a very theologically destructive compliment– namely that God is Omnipotent , All Powerful.

While this philosophical compliment is absent in Scripture, yet present throughout much theology, it was John Calvin that made God’s power the ultimate theological principle.  I used to be a Calvinist. I read Calvin’s Institutes in high school, used Charles Spurgeon sermons for devotions, and quoted Jonathan Edwards to my crazy Arminian friends in college.  Then I realized the God I had come to know in Christ was way too awesome for my Calvinist theology.  The theology was not simply off, but set against God’s nature, name, and essence being love.

This isn’t to say Calvinists aren’t Christians (or that I wasn’t when I was there theologically). I am simply saying that omnipotence is a theological compliment Jesus wants you to take back for four reason:

1. An omnipotent deity is responsible for the evil in the world.  When God can do whatever God wants to do, whenever God wants to do it, everything that happens is either the direct will of God or permitted by God.  Of course Calvin, in his obsession with making God uber-powerful, rejects the idea of God’s permissive will and keeps God as the prime actor in all actions.  That means God has willed genocide, murder, rape, cancer, abuse, and the torture of children.  When God is omnipotent, one can read history as the will of God, and history is way too full of evil, suffering, and violence to imagine it as revelatory of God’s will.  If God ever willed the violent death of an innocent child, then that God is not Jesus’ Abba or worthy of a Christian’s worship.

2. An omnipotent deity is not capable of genuine relationships or love.  Loving relationships require openness, vulnerability, risk, and genuine duration.  We  intuit this. For example, when two lovers consummate their marriage in a passionate act of sweet love-making, it is their freedom vulnerability, and willingness to risk that make their intercourse an act of love and not rape.  If one side of the relationship  is determined, it just isn’t a relationship.  I remember in my Calvinist past thinking that God elected me to love God, but being coerced  sounds much more like a relationship to a gangster than God. There’s a big difference between a puppet and a person, an object and a subject.  The God of Jesus created, sustains, and redeems people, children of God.

3. An omnipotent deity runs eternity like a tyrannical dictator.  “For all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.”  Paul said that, and I think it makes perfect sense.  Of course, if Calvin is correct and God is actually the one in charge, then it becomes a bit odd…or flat our disgusting…to simultaneously think God elects people to suffer for all eternity for their sins.  That’s worse than me spanking my son for eating a cookie I made and gave to him.  This image of God is morally bankrupt and need not be defended.  Instead we could imagine God to be a Woman who seeks out each lost coin until it is found, or a faithful and patient Father waiting to throw a party for the return of his son.  These images sound like a God as loving as Jesus.

4.  An omnipotent deity builds crosses.  The cross and resurrection are the center piece of the faith.  The cross of Jesus was not simply a convenient way for Jesus to die so that God could raise him from the dead, but a symbol of Rome’s power.  Rome and only Rome built crosses and put people on them.  Jesus died with the power of empire inscribed on his cross-dead body.  It is that body that God raised from the dead, and it is the future of the Cross-dead Christ that we as Christians share. Yet for some reason, we so easily speak about God’s power as if God was being revealed in the building of crosses and not in their bearing. God’s self-revelation in Jesus was a rejection of the coercive, determining, and controlling power that the empires of this world love so much for the power of love.  Infinite divine love, the freedom it gives, the risks it takes and the possibilities it continuously creates offer an alternative ultimate theological principle for Christian theology and one I think coheres with the story of Jesus.

Process philosopher Alfred North Whitehead once stated that, “When the Western world accepted Christianity, Caesar conquered; and the received text of Western theology was edited by his lawyers…. The brief Galilean vision of humility flickered throughout the ages, uncertainly…. But the deeper idolatry, of the fashioning of God in the image of the Egyptian, Persian, and Roman imperial rulers, was retained. The Church gave unto God the attributes which belonged exclusively to Caesar.”  

This observation rings true to me, but Caesar’s lawyers do not have to have the last word and Christian theology does not need to protect an idolatrous image of God anymore.

Process is a theology that has grown over the last 100 years from the philosophy of Mr. Whitehead. It is a global community (big in China and Europe) that engages both theory and practice with contemporary scholarship. For those who take it theologically, it is a way to address the Bible that is fully faithful to Jesus‘ vision, while integrating modern Biblical scholarship at every level.

The easiest access point for most is to say that because God IS love, then God’s very nature is loving, and so God’s use of power is not coercive – it is persuasive (almost seductive).

 So God is not omnipotent.

Secondly, God is omniscient in that God knows all there is to know – but the future is undetermined.

Thirdly, God is omnipresent in an even more radical way than traditionally thought.

Lastly, God is neither immutable nor impassable – those are concerns of early Greek thought and not from the Christian scripture.
So quit saying God is omnipotent.  Jesus was just too loving for that to stick.

To learn more about Process Theology, check out  Marjorie Suchocki’s short PDF intro (free), and Bruce Epperly’s book, Process Theology: A Guide for the Perplexed. 

___

Thank you all for the amazing conversation today – and even the push-back! This is the major development of our era over the previous centuries … the people of god in theological dialogue :) I want to make three general responses to some clear trends that have been displayed here:

1) Open Theology: folks are right (like Kurt Willems) to say that there is a significant distinction between Open and Process thought. Open is only/primarily concerned with the nature of the future. They hold that God reserves the right to do whatever God wants … its just that in love God has chosen to limit God’s self. It’s like God is just being nice but “He” doesn’t have to if “He” doesn’t want to.

Process make a clear philosophical assertion that God is not just self-limiting. God’s essence IS love and that is the determining criteria of interpretation.

Thomas Jay Oord does a great job at addressing Philippians 2: this beautiful poem that illustrates a wonderful truth and draws a dramatic picture of how we should BE in the world – like Christ.

2) Classic theology, Calvinism and Theodicy: I really like that folks have objections. They should. My only concerns are with the “we are making God in our image” and “ this is too philosophical” objections.

I want to clarify – Process doesn’t start with the problem of evil, it was just an access point for this format of conversation. If people look at their theology’s approach to scripture, its philosophical underpinnings, and its accounting for evil… If one holds to an approach of the past, sees it flaws, and says “I can live with that problem” – that is one thing. BUT if someone doesn’t see the in-congruence (and thus ‘there is no problem’) then THAT in itself is creating a 2nd problem.

I think that you would really enjoy looking into “Process Theology – an introduction” by Cobb and Griffin… especially pages 108-110 which deal with the Trinity.

Two things that I want to address are A) the baby and the bathwater B) making God in our own image.

I get what folks are saying. Here are a couple of things to consider:

A)  No one wants to throw the baby out with the proverbial bathwater … per se

  • That analogy actually illustrates an interesting patriarchy/hierarchy. IT comes from and era when Dad bathed first, Mom and then the kids … to the point that by the time one got to the baby … the bathwater was SO filthy that It was actually possible to lose the baby in the dirty water and throw it out.
  • We have indoor plumbing now. We take care of our babies. That proverb, that mentality, and that concern may need to be revised for the contemporary situation.

Theology is no different.

A) Making God is our own image: no one wants a God that is just a big version of themselves projected onto the screen of the heavens. This kind of anthropomorphic imagining has happened so often in history that there is a huge rubbish heap of Gods (Thor, Zeus, Rah, etc.) that folks have no time for anymore.

While we are not interested in making a god in our own image, we are in danger of making our concept of god just that irrelevant if we continue to use only frameworks from the 2nd – 16th century.

Process makes an important distinction between Primordial and Consequential nature of God (called the Di-Polar nature of God). This is an essential  element to engaging the huge concept and historic understanding that we are dealing with.

I would be interested in your response to this! – Bo

 

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16 comments
Da stand das Meer
Da stand das Meer

Dear Tripp and Bo, Thanks for doing us all a great service with the post over at Rachel Held Evans' blog. Wow ... it's not often you get a response like that (I agree that the mere fact of this kind of interchange, as a form of I recall Philip Clayton describing as 'Theology Beta', is remarkable). I didn't make it through all 337 responses, but kudos to you both for having the patience and graciousness to deal with a lot of humorless and frankly unedifying flak. Although I found much of the critique of the post depressingly predictable, I reckon it is worth reflecting on some of the deeper issues at stake here with a view to carrying on this (difficult) conversation productively and responsibly. A few non-exhaustive thoughts on what I think see going on here: - Clearly there are some questions with which people find it hard to engage because they have been taught that they are signs of modernist theological 'decadence' and to be avoided like the plague. My hunch is that many of them have been given dire warnings from the pulpit on a weekly basis about the dangers of ... philosophy, modern Biblical scholarship, science, human experience as a theological category etc. etc. They are therefore - as you probably know better than I do - carrying some SERIOUS baggage. Because of that they need to be handled gently and with respect for their reservations - or at least that's my experience when trying to broach these kind of subjects with folks from a very conservative background. Simply trying to blow their arguments out of the water doesn't work, as it tends to have the effect of shutting down the conversation at the outset, which would be a great shame as these are precisely the people who would benefit enormously from the liberating effect of an encounter with stuff such as process philosophy. Having them in the discussion is a great opportunity, but also quite a challenge! - It seems important not to leave yourselves/ourselves vulnerable to the charge of setting up 'straw men' when dealing with classical theological positions. I'm not just talking about Calvinism here ... on the contemporary scene, Radical Orthodoxy is another, arguably much more robust case in point. For example, on the issue of impassibility, one commenter pointed to David Bentley Hart's virtuosic defense of divine apatheia (which underpins 'The Beauty of the Infinite'). I don't necessarily agree with Hart - I believe Robert Jenson made a pertinent riposte to him in saying that 'the beauty of God is not in the peace of his being but in the drama of his life' - but the depth and subtlety of his argumentation does have to be engaged if we want to do more than journalistic theology. For a model of how such engagement can be conducted, look at Elizabeth Johnson's brilliant but respectful defence against Thomas Weinandy's and certain figures in the American Catholic episcopate insistence that impassibility is non-negotiable in the controversy over her 'Quest for the Living God' http://www.commonwealmagazine.org/blog/wp-content/uploads/2011/06/EJohnson.response.CommDoct.pdf . It is perhaps sobering to note, however, that EAJ, for all her theological insight and creative mobilization of tradition, hasn't changed Fr Weinandy's view; if we're expecting the classical position simply to lie down and die, we're deceiving ourselves ... and we still need to remain in dialogue with it. - At the heart of many of the objections to the post seems to be a concern at what is perceived as a departure from the Biblical notion of Divine transcendence. Of course the accusation that process is creating God in humanity's image is a cheap shot and one which is blind to the charge that classical theology has frequently done exactly the same in reverse (God as a projection of human/imperial power writ large). However, what I take home from this exchange is that there is no alternative to the hard work of trying to maintain a proper tension between Divine transcendence and immanence, God as 'wholly other' and simultaneously 'non-aliud', to use Nicholas of Cusa's term (his notion of God as the 'coincidence of opposites' seems a profound distillation not only of theological reflection but mystical experience). Jettisoning either term isn't really an option. We've been trying to work the paradox out for 2000 years in response to varying human situations, and the challenge isn't just about to disappear overnight. - OK, much of the language of the hecklers was inappropriate and their scriptural hermeneutic at best naïve, but it ought to be recognized that the concept of Divine holiness and judgment as standing over - though not necessarily AGAINST in a simplistic way - all human history is integral to the Biblical witness, in the New as much as if not more so than in the First Testament (it also has a pretty solid affirmation in the phenomenology of religious experience if you take stuff like Rudolf Otto's concept of the holy as 'mysterium tremendum et fascinans'). It is Divine transcendence - and here we have to include the enthronement of the crucified Christ as cosmic Kyrios which is frequently omitted from contemporary retrievals of Philippians 2 by Caputo, Vattimo and others - which is the lynchpin of the devastating NT critique of Caesar and all idolatrous pretensions of human power. That's surely one count on which Barth in the 'Römerbrief' was right, for all its polemical excesses. Of course that has nothing whatever to do with positing a capricious, arbitrary Deity whose power lies in the threat of ultimate violence. That has to be repudiated as utterly deconstructed by the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, we all agree. It is more about stressing the continuity of the Gospel with the Old Testament prophetic tradition of the establishment of God's restorative justice and to the notion that we as human beings are morally accountable for our lives and particular for the way in which we have treated 'the least of these'. The deep moral outrage that we feel, for example, at the huge systemic evils of history (and our shame at our own complicity with them) surely in a sense of the necessity of judgment which is more than simply a human intuition but has its roots in the relationship of our ethical sense - however fallen - to the Divine image. - This having been said, it seems worth stressing to the doubters that what you're trying to defend - as I read it - is not an picture of God that we have constructed for contemporary sensibilities but the image of God that Jesus himself incarnated and into which we are ourselves called. The ethical dimension of the character of God is certainly not reducible to human moral concepts, but neither can it be in polar opposition to them (otherwise Jesus's exhortation to be perfect as the Father is perfect would make no sense whatsoever). If there is a human being in the heart of the Godhead - which is a completely orthodox theological assertion - then radically disjunctive models of the God-world relationship underpinning many of the objections to what you wrote simply don't work because they haven't thought through the Incarnation adequately. - One final thought (though unpacking this whole dialogue is going to take much longer!). It was interesting to me that none of the commenters made any substantial reference to the work of the Holy Spirit in our being incorporated into the Divine life, nor to the activity of the Spirit through human conscience. That seems like a fruitful area for reflection moving forward, as it is the conviction of many of us that it is the Spirit which is at work when we undertake an honest, repenting look at what you, Bo, refer to as the 'bloated carcass' of Christendom, leading us not to brush aside the Biblical witness but to understand it on a deeper level in terms of its overarching structure and from its Christological centre. By the way, my own position on all of this - inasmuch as I have one - is somewhere between 'open' and 'process' in the 'kenotic creation' camp. But I'll leave that for another time... Peace, Peter B.

Kevin Jackson
Kevin Jackson

Hey guys, I asked a question on RHE's post about "ex nihilo" from the process perspective and Bo replied that he had a great resource he could email me. Could I get that from you? You can reach me at: nampamarinerfan at gmail dot com. Thanks! -Kevin

Jon G
Jon G

" that most theologians would take your observation and say that there is NOT any genuine evil when seen from God’s perspective." I guess if I grant this point, I can see the case that you are making. But I haven't heard that and am unfamiliar with it. I was always under the impression that God does recognize genuine evil...that's what the incarnation, mostly, addressed - God recognizing evil and overcoming it. If we assume that there IS evil from God's perspective, then couldn't you still have omnipotence and omnibenevolence when considering that God freely limited his power for the greater good involved in love and freewill? I'm in agreement with you on the other option. I can't say that it makes any sense to believe that God is not completely good. Anyway, thanks for your time and the podcast. I'm hoping one day to understand it all! :o)

Tripp Fuller
Tripp Fuller

@Jon you said "doesn’t your response assume that there can’t be ANY possible reason why allowing evil can serve a greater good?" I would simply add that most theologians would take your observation and say that there is NOT any genuine evil when seen from God's perspective. The other option would be to say that God was NOT completely good and thus it is OK for God to do or permit evil. Process types think we should keep God's Goodness AND the actuality of genuine evil. For me our awareness of history and the number of unnecessary crosses built by humans and the unnecessary destruction attributable to nature lead me to think that the popular (no genuine evil option...via Augustine) is no longer viable.

Jon G
Jon G

Tripp, thanks for the reply. I see your point, but, to push back a bit, doesn't your response assume that there can't be ANY possible reason why allowing evil can serve a greater good? I can think of several reasons why not giving Hitler a heart attack would serve a greater good. I believe the old surgery analogy (sometimes, for the betterment of the body, you have to slice and dice things) works here. I know it's not an easy answer, but it seems logical (at least to my oafish brain). However, if God is not omnipotent (he is unable, involuntarily, to do all that is possible), what limits him? It's hard for me to imagine something that could limit him involuntarily because he, supposedly, is the origin of everything. And if that is so, then something that limits him must have been originated in him and permitted by him to do so, in which case, again, God was the one who created that limitation...out of his omnipotence. Is this making any sense? My brain is getting fuzzy right now...

Tripp Fuller
Tripp Fuller

@Joel... Here's your answer form Cobb's perspective: http://homebrewedchristianity.com/2012/01/10/john-cobb-answers-what-is-the-relation-between-process-theology-and-openness-theology/ Hey Jon. The problem with omnipotence is that if it is correct all things are either willed OR permitted buy God. God's permissive will is as problematic to me as a parent who lets their kid walk into oncoming traffic and does nothing when they could have...OR didn't give Hitler an heart attack or loving heart...OR didn't relocate natural disasters to avoid the death and destruction of people. Hope that clarifies at least what I was going for.

Jon G
Jon G

This might be a stupid question...but isn't omnipotence the claim that God CAN do anything? It seems like what you are describing has more to do with determinism than omnipotence. The way I always saw it, God can do anything (he is capable of being able to do something) but He doesn't always because He leaves room for free will. Am I missing something?

Joel Black
Joel Black

Is there any significant difference between Process Theology and Open Theology? Same thing but different names? Just curious.

Tripp Fuller
Tripp Fuller

@Patrik Thanks for letting us know. It is always awesome to hear that parading around out theological nerdom has been helpful for others.....even if they are still Neo-Ortho (@Travis). Seriously thought it is nice to know. @Paul make sure you link to the post or tweet me so I can check it out. Looking forward to the fun!

Paul
Paul

There is way too much to respond to as a comment. This has me thinking, so awesome job with that. However, I don't think view accounts for sovereignty in the least. Just because is able to do something (omnipotence) does mean he actually does it (sovereignty). I'll post something today or tomorrow in response. Thanks for throwing out the idea. I hope that many people start thinking this through.

Travis Mamone
Travis Mamone

I think I'm starting to understand process theology more, although I still would not consider myself a full-blown process theologian quite yet. My theology is a mixture of Barthian Neo-Orthodoxy, liberation theology, process theology, and a little bit of classic liberal theology. Although if I was forced to pick just one label, I guess neo-orthodox is the closest.

Patrik Olterman
Patrik Olterman

First of all thank you for your podcast and your ministry, through wich I discovered process thought. Before I had what I called a post-it theology. Loose doctrines about an assortment of things with no connection between the dots. When I by your recommendation read Epperly's process for the perplexed (see full title and link up top) the dots where connected, all my post-it's fit within the process framework. The greatest win has been the redemption of the sacred feminine and the theopoetics of creation from the deep. This has given my faith new depth (pun intended) and a strength and a quality to my walk of faith I did not know it could have. Again thank you!

Bo Sanders
Bo Sanders

Thanks for the reminder. I will email you -Bo

Bo Sanders
Bo Sanders

OH YEAH! one big difference - let me give a quick explanation and then an analogy - Open theology is ONLY concerned with the nature of the future. It believes that it is open and undetermined. Basically - you could be an Open person and stick with (concede) 90-95% of what Classic Protestant theology holds to (Evangelical, Conservative, Charismatic, Pentecostal, etc.) and only concern yourself with IF god knows the future and we have free will. It is a very specific conversation about a narrow (relatively) slice of theological concern. It branches out from there I love open folks. I was an open folk. It saved me from the Josh McDowell school of apologetics I was weened on. In many circles it is considered radical. - Process is a totally different starting point. Here is my rough analogy: Open is a program that you can download onto you Windows machine. It doesn't entirely reformat your drive but it significantly impacts the way that your programs run. Process is a totally different Operating System. It's like Mac. It is uniquely designed to run with the hardware and is operates on a unique language that comprises an operating system. You can download Open and keep running most of your existing programs. Process is a very different endeavor = it requires a conversion of sorts. Is that helpful? if not just tell me - I will come from a different angle ;)

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