A Costly Stupidity

A couple of weeks ago I posted some thoughts about being stupid, something of which conservatives are often accused. At that time I offered the thoughts from Philosophy Now as to what constituted stupidity in the first place. That description includes “poor reasoning, entrenched mental habits and unexamined assumptions.” As was then noted and can readily be seen, such a description allows a precious few of us to escape inclusion in the stupid condition, at least on occasion.

It is a theme I will occasionally return, though not with the intent of dwelling there. Some examples of stupidity in cation just cannot go by without comment, and I’ve waited for more than a week to write about one of them. And sure enough, a cruise ship captain succeeds in providing yet another glaring example of stupidity that is not just humorous or head-scratching, but downright costly and tragic for other people. But today I want to look at the incident involving American soldiers desecrating the bodies of slain Taliban combatants in Afghanistan. No more needs to be said about the specific form of desecration.

And that is just the point–the sharing of details that becomes in itself a rush to provide ever more graphic descriptions of what probably should not have been described in the first place, at least not in public. The soldiers immediately responsible certainly acted on “poor reasoning.” They would, and I presume now do, confess that what they did was stupid, guided more by raw emotion than reasoning at all. Saying that the heat of the battle, the hardships of the deployment, the psychological stress endured, etc., do things to people’s capacity for better judgment is undoubtedly true. We can almost understand, even while we cannot excuse. But what about those who took the photographs and distributed them?

Poor reasoning, entrenched mental habits and unexamined assumptions. All of these are in full display in this situation. A photographer sees the act; without reflection, or with poor reflection, he snaps the picture. Why? If it were to show to a commanding officer as proof of the inappropriate actions, one might defend the decision. But that’s not what happened. Whether the photographer himself or another person gaining access to the now documented atrocity, someone decided to take this to the news media, from whence it quickly and predictably circulated around the world. Poor reasoning? Yes. Entrenched mental habits and unexamined assumptions? Yes.

Just what those habits and assumptions might be should be something for all of us to think about. We so highly value “the public’s right to know” and “freedom of the press” that we seem entirely incapable of placing them into any context whatsoever, as though they trump every other consideration that might be part of the equation. This inevitably leads to poor reasoning. I suspect that most of us had a voice screaming inside of us when we saw the graphic, even if strategically digitized pictures. That voice said something like, “WHAT ARE YOU DOING??” We understood instantly what damage would be done to American interests, American diplomacy, and American lives as a result of our enemies having this sort of publicity–let alone the bulletin-board material for their Al-Qaeda recruitment efforts. For some people, anything that happens becomes open material for worldwide distribution; consequences need not be considered. In fact, there might even be a personal prize involved for being the one to get the scoop. How stupid. Let’s, at the very least, examine some habits and assumptions.

Stupid actions have been going on in the world and in our own circles since humans have occupied the earth; they will continue, and perhaps even escalate as we lose our capacity to reason well. What we do with them, however, is a matter that needs to be thought about in an overall vision what is good for us. Not incidentally, the same logic applies to our shameful, costly, and destructive societal attitude toward pornography. I initially posted the thoughts on not being stupid in the context of declaring the need for a Christian vision of the public good. The center of our faith is the One who embodied the way, the truth, and the life. Surely we should be able to translate that One into a vision of what the good life looks like. Seems to me it’s the only antidote for stupidity.

Believing Joe, Believing Jesus, Believing Anything

For those who think I may be obsessed with Joe Paterno and his unceremonious exit from Penn State university, hear me out on this. Because it’s more about what people believe and proclaim and why than it is about a legendary football coach. And it’s more about what people think about Jesus than it is about what anyone thinks of Joe.

This post was prompted by two unrelated incidents from last week. First was a suggestion from Lisa Delay (now referring to herself as my muse) that I write something about the take on the Bible proffered by John Shelby Spong in a recent book; the second was the interview with Mr. Paterno conducted by Washington Post writer Sally Jenkins. A day or two after reading the latter I went back to the Post to read some of the questions asked of Jenkins by some of her readers and her responses thereto. At first, I was dumbfounded by what I saw.

My perspective was of one who really wanted to hear what the man had to say. Yes, the man in question is one I have admired for his longterm commitment to higher education as more than the backdrop for athletics. Enough has been written on that. When reading the Jenkins account, I tend to believe what he said, perhaps largely based on what I knew of the man prior to all of the unfolding drama of the past two months. When reading some of the vitriolic comments to the article, however–some of which seemed clearly to take Jenkins herself aback–it became evident that nothing was going to satisfy these critics short of an exposure of Paterno as a fraud from beginning to end. When this did not happen, even one of the more celebrated news reporters of our time was summarily charged and convicted of being blinded to “the truth” or being complicit in perpetuating a hoax. Why the venom? Is it solely, or even primarily, because of their righteous indignation over the horrible acts of Jerry Sandusky? I doubt it, not to say that they are not seriously bothered thereby. But I rather suspect that it stems from a prior impression of who Joe Paterno really is, one which is rather far removed from my own (which, by the way, is not in the category of sainthood).

And it’s this coloring of our reading by prior associations and attitudes that brings me to the former Episcopal bishop, Spong, known for his engaging manner with audiences–and for his denial of orthodox beliefs regarding the incarnation, deity, and bodily resurrection of Jesus. It’s not only evangelicals who wonder what sort of strange teaching this man has been offering, and how he derives it from what is universally acknowledged as the church’s source book, the Bible. What does one do with biblical data that seems irrefutably to affirm what Spong denies? Well, the short answer is to debunk the idea that the Bible is in any ontological sense the Word of God. This is what Spong attempts to do in his book, Reclaiming the Bible for a Non-Religious World.

There are some ideas Spong is unable or unwilling (I don’t know the man’s mind to determine which it might be, or in what measure) to relinquish. One is his commitment to naturalism, according to which nothing happens which is not attributable to solely natural forces, keeping God from having any direct contact with the ongoing operations or decisions of this world. That includes the closing of the possibility of life beyond the grave for Jesus, or for anyone before, since, or yet to come. He is also fully committed to the ideas of liberal thinking about all moral questions, so that when Jesus or any other biblical spokesperson declares otherwise, it is merely due to the agenda of the one doing the reporting, which is obviously to present their preferred reading of Jesus in order to further their own interests. They certainly were not inspired in any meaningful way that would warrant an authoritative voice being attached to their writings.

One wonders what Spong’s prior association with God might be. What colors his reading of what is possible, and of how seriously the word of the reporters should be taken, what their agenda might be? And do these previous impressions about God determine what he is able to accept as words from Him, rather than from biased reporters.

What’s my point? Simply this: all of us are influenced by our prior associations or ideas when we hear something new. That is, there are things we want to hear and things we don’t want to hear; and we can–if we choose–place the words and reports we hear into the already determined framework we carry with us. For Spong or the diehard Paterno critic as for his most ardent supporter, we can allow those ideas to continue to determine what we will accept as true. Or we can allow the framework itself to be questioned. And Christians do not need to fear this sort of questioning if they have already had an experience of the One who describes himself as the way, the TRUTH, and the life. If we know Jesus, we know the truth, through which we can see, in an ever unfolding, always growing way everything else, since by him and for him everything has been made. We may–and at times must–change our perspective on the things in this world, maybe needing to give up cherished ideas. But it centers in our knowledge of Jesus, who doesn’t change.

Tebow or Not Tebow? That Is a Question

Yes, a shameless play on words to get some attention. Confession offered; announcement of proper penance awaited. At least I didn’t say it is the question.

Now that his season has ended, maybe we can begin to work on a balanced perspective into which the unexpected fame and equally unanticipated controversy about Tim Tebow, quarterback of the Denver Broncos, can be fit. The controversy has two decidedly different aspects. One is the actual ability to play the position itself that he does/does not possess; that’s only of interest to real football fans. The other side of controversy comes from his public, symbolic ways of declaring that he believes in Jesus Christ. Specifically, the posture of one knee on the ground with elbow propped on the other, hand to bowed forehead has created a new verb in the cultural vernacular: Tebowing. You are forgiven for thinking it was simply praying, but the position has been imitated by folks in all walks of life, many of whom have not had a conversation with the Almighty in a very long time–if ever. One image posted on the MSN homepage had playmates (Hugh Hefner variety, not pre-schoolers) trying it out.

And then there was the freakish/providential total yardage Tebow was responsible for in a first-round playoff game against the Pittsburgh Steelers. 316 yards creates a perfect stamp of approval on the player who in his collegiate days at Florida wore eye-black patches with “John 3:16” prominently displayed–at least according to true believers. Anyone who is a believer, a Broncos fan, and a statistics geek simultaneously must be downright ec-stat-ic. The organization Focus on the Family seized upon the opportunity and produced a commercial spot aired in the next game (in which Denver was rather unceremoniously thrashed by New England). The “commercial” consisted of a serial recitation of John 3:16 by a variety of children.

What should we make of all this? Is Tebow wrong to put his faith on display in a place where it does not have anything to do with what he is there for? Is it another way of calling attention to himself? Even if it were the latter, it surely is to be preferred to the primping and performing done by wide receivers and running backs upon reaching the end zone–or just simply making a successful catch of a pass. And players from both teams have been gathering at midfield for a brief time of prayer after games for quite a few years, though this is virtually unknown to the cameras of the networks covering the NFL. Why can’t Tebow just join in at that time with his fellow believers among the players?

I’m perfectly willing to let Tim Tebow or anyone else figure out what the Spirit is encouraging them to do as testimony to their decision to follow Jesus, provided they are open to wise counsel of other spiritually minded people. And that should be a guiding principle for all of us. Few of us will ever gain anything like the stage on which Tebow has performed; therefore, our words should be few as to what we would do in those circumstances. Acknowledging our dependence on God for every ounce of strength, ability, and opportunity we are given is incumbant on all of us; how we do so is not so clear.

But I do have a somewhat contrarian opinion regarding that Focus on the Family spot. Let me explain my concern. What did you see and hear in that cute commercial? If you are a believer who is already familiar with the words and understands the context, and you share the overriding concerns of the organization that produced it, it said one thing; if you do not have that backdrop, they may have said another. They may have said that the faith of Tim Tebow really is childish after all. And that is what concerns me. That Christian faith itself is that sort of belief is already widely held in our culture; and it may have been reinforced by this clip. I also worry (something I do a lot regarding ideas–call it an occupational hazard) about reducing the word of Christ to a simple formula without a context. But even if that is deemed to be worth doing so that interested persons might ask about it, why not have the verse recited by a series of NFL players who are believers? That, I suggest, would have ben far more powerful.

What do you think?

Saturday’s Scattered Thoughts

Another week coming to a conclusion. Thanks to all of you who commented on the series on omnipotence; it proved to be one of the most succesful series attempted on this blog (though well behind the Sandusky/PSU commentary). And a tip of the hat to Lisa Delay (lisadelay.com) for suggesting it. Proof that requests are indeed accepted!

Last week I began a Saturday series commenting on things in general, some of which may be picked up as themes for future posts, but most of which are just put out there for your own thinking. If they strike a chord, please comment and perhaps we’ll generate a weekend discussion in the process.

The first item is one I seriously considered as a topic to take on. It has to do with the widely and wildly perpetrated youtube video taking on “religion” as opposed to Jesus. You’ve probably seen it, or at least have seen it posted on someone’s facebook status. Rather than commenting directly, however, here is a link to Kevin DeYoung’s blog: http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/kevindeyoung/ DeYoung echoes and develops thoughts very similar to my own, centering on the fact that the thesis is seriously flawed due to its very slippery and shifting definition of what “religion” is and is not, which has the consequence of not taking the whole of Jesus’ words about it into consideration. I’m sure some readers will immediately dismiss my objections as those of an aging traditionalist. So read them from someone else.

On a sad note, please offer prayer on behalf of Ben Witherington and his wife, whose 32 yr.-old daughter died yesterday. Ben is a New Testament scholar at Asbury Theological Seminary. As I can readily attest, ministry professionals (a bad term, I confess) are very much like everyone else; these things hurt deeply.

And the winner is . . . Dr. Mary Midgley. I had awaited with decidedly unbated breath the latest issue of Philosophy Now to find out who the winner might be of the first Philosophy Now Award for Contributions in the Fight Against Stupidity. Midgley, a philosopher (surprised?) was selected out of twenty-five nominees for her “many contributions to clear thinking.” I am pleased to report that I found the one article of hers that I have read to be consistent with that description.

In a rare 9-0 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court seems to have gotten it right. In citing freedom of religion as the first and most basic of the civil rights, religious organizations are not bound to ignore a person’s beliefs when hiring individuals. It does not make sense to force, for example, for a Catholic charity to hire an open advocate of abortion, even if the person is otherwise qualified–or an avowed atheist at an evangelical relief organization.

One has to wonder how much defying and stretching of the truth will be tolerated in our perpetual political campaigns. The Romney-Bain Capital issue is just the latest example. Whether the truth can be known at all with all of the charges and counter-charges, the one thing that can be discerned without fail is that our poisoned way of seeking office is becoming even more toxic. It raises anew the questions about the extent of Christian participation in the campaigns; can it be done with integrity? Without reference to any actual positions, I do applaud the considerable attempts of Rick Santorum to steer as clear as possible of the tactics of used be some of his opponents. (But I do disagree with some of his positions, but that’s another matter). And what should Ron Paul do with the endorsement of the legalized prostitution “industry” in Nevada?

My thoughts are not as scattered this week as last; maybe that’s due to focusing on syllabus completion for an upcoming semester, during which that ever asked question of God’s relationship to suffering will be the subject of an elective. The question never goes away, but neither does the answer: Jesus, the Christ. It will take more than a semester to fill out that answer.

Blessings to all.

Is It Really Power Vs. Love?

Perhaps they were saving the best for last.

I am referring to the claims of Tripp Fuller and Bo Sanders of “homebrewedchristianity” that Jesus wants you and me to take back any compliments we may have (mistakenly) paid to Jesus or His Father regarding His/their omnipotence. We have looked the three reasons which supposedly support this claim; today we’ll consider the final one.

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.

I think the argument goes something like this: God cannot be an omnipotent deity because if He were He would have to be a builder rather than a bearer of the cross that is at the center of Christian faith. Perhaps that works with the flawed definition of omnipotence used exclusively by the authors, as touched on in previously in this series. But it falls on its face on further consideration.

Let’s acknowledge right away that there is much to affirm about the paragraph cited. Christ did disarm “the powers” by triumphing over them through his bearing of the cross, exposing them in the process. But what is it that is exposed–the very idea of power? That cannot be the case, for as the paragraph continues, it is the power of love that defeats and exposes the coercive power that built the cross. Furthermore, it was the mighty power of God that raised Jesus from the dead (something coercive power is neither interested in nor capable of doing). How is Jesus raised other than through God’s power? Through the power of love? But from whence does this come? If it is not from God, who is not supposed to be omnipotent, it must exist independently of Him. That doesn’t seem to work well.

The mistake made by the authors in this entire discussion is to associate God’s power with coercive power. But it is coercive power itself which is shown by God’s real power–yes, of love–to be less than those who grasp for it think it to be. If we dissociate ourselves from the thinking that coercion is necessary to power, the objections to God’s omnipotence begin to melt away. A less than omnipotent God cannot act in the ways the Bible clearly portrays Him acting in the flow of the narrative that takes us from creation, through the fall, to redemption, and toward consummation. Rejection of this quality in God leads the authors, and unfortunately many others, to the ideas of process theology, which holds that God is Himself “in process” of becoming, right along with the world. It is dependent upon the philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead on one hand and the conviction that Christian theology was hijacked by Greek philosophy on the other.

The latter point would take a longer time to develop adequately; it’s not the stuff of blog posts that many people will be interested in. But it has nonetheless become axiomatic to many in the Emergent Village universe, so much so that it is adopted and then proclaimed as given by many people who have never studied either Greek philosophy, early Christian doctrine or history. The tale is much more complex than we are led to believe by some of these spokespersons. The tragedy is that we are, in the process, encouraged to think less of God than is expected of us in Scripture. Rather than deny that God is omnipotent, we should prayerfully, carefully engage ourselves in growing our understanding of the nature of His mighty power.

Does Omnipotence Imply Divine Tyrrany?

Today I’ll look at the third supposed reason for which Tripp Fuller and Bo Sanders think Jesus wants you to apologize for thinking God is omnipotent. This reason underscores the dependence of the authors on one failed view of omnipotence in order to make their case.

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.

Frankly, the logic of this proposal is so faulty it need not be commented upon. It entirely depends upon the absolute dependence of the concept of omnipotence on Calvin’s (or Augustine’s) concept of election. But let’s see what it says and implies anyway.

Why must anyone who accept the idea of God’s omnipotence be tied to the idea that such a deity “runs eternity like a tyrannical dictator”? Let’s be clear about something suggested in the first post in this series. Our interest should not be in defending a philosophical concept of omnipotence, or of any other quality or characteristic attributed to God. Our interest is in seeing whether such terms adequately describe the God of the Bible. If the terms fit the data, we may use them, but never without reference to that data in favor of a purely philosophical definition and its supposed logical entailments. Attention to those logical entailments has, indeed, led segments of theology into some of the directions we now see as counter-productive, if not simply misleading. And if Tripp and Fuller have been led to believe that an omnipotent deity is necessarily a dictatorial tyrant, that alone is evidence that it has happened.

So what might this God, who is almighty and does not determine everything under and over the sun, look like? Quite simply, He looks like the God of the biblical story, including the images suggested by Tripp and Fuller from Luke 15. That chapter is hardly the first inkling we get in Scripture that this is God’s way. It is a summary of God’s willingness, God’s pleading, prodding, and proposing to humankind that they return to Him. The entire narrative argues strongly and clearly that God has not dictated what humans will do. He does everything to encourage them to act differently, including punishment–but not for eating cookies that He gave them and told them to eat.

But here is the critical point. The God who does this is not a powerless deity who has only persuasion with which to accomplish His
goals for humanity. It is the Maker of heaven and earth, the Ruler of the stars and seas, of storms and sunrises, and of saints and sinners. The latter pair is what we are most interested in with regard to the charges against omnipotence, but we must not consider it without reference to the other created things. God surely had the power to create a mechanistic world of human events; but it does not appear to me that He has done so. Instead, He exercised His power to create beings in His image, with freedom of action and thought. Yes, there is risk involved and damage to result from such a decision. And having made this kind of creature, deeming the results to be worth the risk, He could step in and override human decisions and directions at any time. Freedom is used in creative and destructive ways; but for the maturing of humans to take place, the results of one course or the other must be seen and experienced.

As parents we can stop our children from doing bad things by restricting their freedom; we have the power, but choose not to use it in certain circumstances. It is no limitation on the power of God to think that He will not move to immediately correct every misstep people make. How He actually does use His unlimited power to deal with human error and defiance will be the subject of the final entry in this series.

Powerless Love?

Today we’ll look at the second reason for which Tripp Fuller thinks Jesus wants you and me to take back any compliments we may have paid him that refer to his (or his father’s) omnipotence.

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.

There we have it. The more powerful one is, the less capable one is of truly loving another person or other persons. Is that really the way it works? Is that a necessary conclusion?

The first glaring error here is that the author argues only against one (flawed, in my view) version of God’s omnipotence. Calvin’s doctrine of election is not a necessary entailment of either God’s love or His power. The idea that God only loves a certain portion of humanity and decrees that only they will love Him in return, and that this was decided prior to creation itself is simply not historic, orthodox Christian belief. The Synod of Orange declared as much in the year 529. There are certainly ways of affirming God’s power without also affirming that He uses His great might in ways that are contrary to His loving purposes. (More on that in tomorrow’s post.)

A further problem in this second reason is what was alluded to in the first part of this series. We cannot look at our experiences of love in one context, marriage, and extrapolate from there to what God must do if He truly loves us. While the love of man and woman for one another does indeed inform us, it does not circumscribe the idea of love. What about an additional family experience, that of parent-child? That may be closer to the point, though not completely analogous. After all, the love between a man and a woman is between two presumably different though equal human beings; it cannot tell us how a superior being properly loves one of lower status (ontologically speaking). Parent surely have greater power than the child; and we would certainly not want to conclude that love precludes them from using that power in the interests of the child. Nor does love demand that power be used to override the freedom given to the child whenever he or she steps out of line, even though it would be possible to do so.

“If one side of the relationship is determined . . .,” writes the author. But where did such determination sneak into the discussion of omnipotence? Rejecting omnipotence on the basis of determination is simply wrong-headed and unwarranted. I do believe that God takes certain “risks” in creating, out of his power, human beings who become objects of his love.

Biblical writers had no trouble whatsoever positing God’s power and love simultaneously. For one brief example, take the Prologue to the Gospel According to John. In those first eighteen verses it is not only the Father, but the incarnate Son who has made everything that has been made; sounds an awful lot like omnipotence in action. The same Word, when enfleshed, was beheld in His glory as full of grace (and truth). This is same God who so loved that He gave. Or take Paul’s Epistle to the Colossians, the opening chapter of which again affirms the identity of one made flesh as the one through whom all things were made. The same Paul appeals to the God who loved us and gave himself for us.

It seems to me that Fuller and Sanders have a problem to which they would never admit—they are modernists! Christians prior to the Enlightenment affirmed with Augustine that, “I believe in order to understand.” Modernists turned that into, “I believe what I can understand.” If these authors have a problem understanding the conjoining of omnipotence and overwhelming love they find it necessary to jettison one part of the pair. I don’t think Jesus wants us to make that concession–or take back the compliment of praising his almighty power.

Who Let That Happen?

Are you one of those people who always has to know who is to blame for everything that goes wrong? Or maybe you know someone like that. Some folks just can’t rest until they who wo is responsible. But lots of things–virtually all of them, in fact–are just too complicated to be reduced sufficiently to be placed on one person’, or even one groups’ shoulders. Ultimately, God ends up getting more than His share of the blame for just about every lousy thing that happens in the world, especially when we can’t pin that blame on entirely on someone else.

This is the second post offered in response to Tripp Fuller’s contention that “Jesus Wants You to Take Back the Compliment”–the compliment being omnipotence, not just as applied to Christ himself, but to God in any way, shape, or person. Today we’ll look at the first of four reasons given as evidence supporting the idea that divine omnipotence is really a bad idea.

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.

First of all, I agree with Fuller in rejecting meticulous providence–the view that everything that happens in this world is directly willed by God to happen just as it actually does happen. Among other problems, it would be very difficult to appeal to this sort of deity as the source of the moral order if he himself acted in these awful or ordained that we do so. I realize that some of my Calvinist friends would respond by saying that in spite of the incidences of horrendous evil, this is still the best of all possible worlds, and that any other world God could have created would have had even more of those sorts of events. But that argument ends up cutting off the very omnipotence that is at issue–what is it that would have prevented a better world, since we ourselves can imagine one in which less evil occurs?

But is that the real problem here? I don’t think so. The problem, as indicated in the previous post, stems from what is offered as a working definition of omnipotence–the ability on the part of God to do whatever he wants whenever he wants to do it. Perhaps in one way this is true, but it is also grossly distorted. The distortion stems from a theological error which may at first seem like something for academics to argue about in their sequestered lounges; but it is critical to the way any of us understand both God’s ways of working in this world and our expectations of God in “doing something” about the many instances of evil and suffering we encounter. The concept? Divine simplicity.

What this doctrine says is that the divine nature is not a composite, but a unity, a simple whole. Within this whole are what we describe as power, will, intention, and, as Christians have learned from biblical revelation, holiness, love, justice, and other attributes. But these attributes, or characteristics of God do not “compete” with one another or vie for supremacy in a given decision or decree. When viewed from different human perspectives, God is manifested in terms we recognize as one or another character trait; but we should not think of this as isolated from any other attribute. What this tells us is that while it may be true that God can do whatever he wants to do, it is also true that what he wants to do is also going to be in concert with his nature. And, as Fuller does want us to understand, that nature is also manifested to us as one of love.

The nature of divine action is not going to be fully comprehended by our best minds or by our minds at their best. But to deny God’s omnipotence on the basis of a fear of capriciousness is not an answer Christians or seekers of Christ should entertain seriously. This theme will be returned to as we consider the additional three arguments in upcoming posts.

How Much Power?

Recently a friend and former student sent an email with the following opinion attached, asking that I consider commenting on it in the blog. So Lisa, this one (and perhaps a follow-up or two) is for you and anyone else asking similar questions. The issue is the matter of God’s omnipotence, raised by Tripp Fuller and Bo Sanders in a post cited below:

Omnipotence: A Compliment Jesus Wants You to Take Back
By Tripp Fuller and Bo Sanders

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:

Now before revealing these great reason(s) for which Fuller wants you to repent of your thinking that God is all powerful, let’s take a closer look at the premises from which he is making this plea.

First of all, for all his youthful acquaintance with Calvin’s Institutes, he seems to have missed something very significant about trinitarian thinking. The “Jesus” and “God” are not two different persons. If he is really thinking “Jesus” vis-a-vis “the Father,” then he should say so. If one is going to present Christian thinking, say it with enough precision to avoid adding unnecessary confusion. Early church teachers thought long and hard about what the Bible requires us to think about the nature of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, concluding that they share completely in the one divine essence.

Secondly, and more importantly to my mind, claiming that omnipotence is a “destructive compliment” to God that is “absent in(sic) Scripture,” is both grammatically and biblically ludicrous. (Something can be absent “from” something else, but it cannot be absent “in”). One cannot posit God as creator without positing omnipotence; one cannot believe in the fulfillment of God’s purposes if there is something more powerful out there to potentially thwart his intentions. For more direct refuting, the Psalms ought to be consulted, along with the books of Job and Ecclesiastes. While one may debate whether or not the actual term is present, one cannot rightly argue that the concept is absent.

What is really subject to contention is the nature—not the fact—of divine omnipotence. Here Tripp and Sanders have a valid point, in that Greek philosophy has its own understanding of what an omnipotent deity must be and do; and to hold that definition of omnipotence as something the Christian God must fulfill is indeed to stray from biblical understanding. What I mean is that when we draw the biblical conclusion that God is all powerful, we do so as a summary way of describing the Scripture’s portarayls of his actions and possible actions; we do not use a word, and then draw the definition solely or even primarily from what the philosophy of a given age says that the word must logically carry with it.

In fact, we can look at the same error taking shape in the preference (make that non-negotiable demand) from the authors that we see God’s essence as love. I’m not about to argue that God is not love; but I will insist that we draw our understanding of divine love from God’s actions and possible actions in the Scripture, and not from what we think an all loving deity would or would not, must or must not do.

This will become more evident in posts that deal with the “four reasons” we are promised. But that begins tomorrow.

Saturday’s Stray Thoughts

Trying something new here. I’m going to try to end the week by posting just what the title suggests–a few things that have struck cords, but not enough to send out a clear sound in the form of a regular post. If any of them happen to hit an area you’d like to weigh in on or believe to be worthy of further discussion, feel free to let me know. For now, there will be no intended connection between the thoughts offered or subjects touched upon. And if anyone follows Scot McKnight’s Jesus Creed blog, yes, I am guilty of copying his model in Weekly Meanderings.

First, as a loyal Penn State alum (nothing hidden about that), I’ve got mixed feelings about the announcement of the next head football coach. They didn’t ask for my opinion, so I guess it’s not worth much. I’m just hoping for some continuity of the many good things that the program has been.

Something hit me this morning as I was watching the news. Homelessness. The report was in reaction to a recent string of murders perpetrated on homeless victims. I know it’s not a new problem, though homelessness is on the increase in the U. S. Maybe that’s part of the problem–it’s not new, and therefore off the pages until something different happens. But the thought of what it might mean to be without a home, as I sat comfortably in my living room just hit me hard this time. What to do about it? I wish I knew; but I don’t want to put the matter back into the forgotten recesses of my mind.

Then there was the visitation for a friend’s deceased son, a young father all of nineteen years of age. There were pictures. Pictures of people whose lives will be impacted by the loss. I couldn’t help but think if only–if only he could see the important place he held in lives. I have no idea what it is that keeps people from seeing and hearing the value they hold in the lives of others. It isn’t always that we are not told we are loved; something keeps certain people from hearing it. Wish we could get at it and destroy it.

Presidential politics well underway. Enough said. Sigh.

It seems Iran has a bit of a problem. After predictably vilifying and threatening a U. S. Navy vessel (and, of course, all things American along with it), doesn’t the same vessel turn around and rescue a distressed Iranian civilian vessel and crew? Gosh, it’s hard for anyone to rant against acts of kindness and human compassion. Do you suppose there’s a lesson there regarding the way to show people who a nation really is, and what it’s citizens are actually about? At least, when they are true to themselves. Something about feeding the enemy when he is hungry, heaping burning coals, etc., comes to mind.

Speaking of Iran, it is becoming more and more apparent that we, in terms of both government policy and media portrayal, really don’t know as much as we need to know about Islam. It is not just another monotheistic faith; it has an entirely different view of God, people, and (to return to a theme from earlier in the week) of human flourishing. All the more reason to figure out what a Christian vision of that public good really entails.

I received an email from someone in the Obama campaign machinery this week. It was addressed to Pennsylvanians, seeking horror stories about Rick Santorum to be shared with the rest of the nation so that all would be aware of how dangerous this man could be. Oh, and it was “signed” by a gal named Aletheia. How disturbingly ironic.

And how are any of you doing with those resolutions? Here’s hoping that, at the very least, the one about avoiding being stupid is still intact. And do venture a bit of feedback on this format for ending the week.