Sleeping Through Storms: Rethinking Theodicy, Natural Disasters and God’s Omnipotence

God is not all-powerful.

At least, not in the ways we tend to define power.

For us, power means that we get our way, that we can impose our will upon the world around us, that we can conform others into our images in order to achieve unity and security. In our minds, we equate power with control, sovereignty.

So, when the world spins out of control as it did in Oklahoma this week, and at the Boston marathon a month ago, and at Sandy Hook Elementary six months ago, we begin to wonder what happened to this all-powerful God to whom the skies and seas and nations are supposed to bow.

Are the heavens really declaring the majesty of God when an E-5 EF-5 tornado destroys an entire town?

Only the most deranged and pathological of leaders suggested in the tornado’s wake that God was in control of the situation or was somehow, ultimately, responsible for the deadly twister. That includes, apparently, folk like John Piper and our own president, who seemed to imply that the tornado was a part of God’s plan. I’m sorry, but tornadoes are not part of God’s plan. Most of us can admit that without losing our faith, just like we can admit that God isn’t really calling the shots when it comes to jet streams, weather patterns and 200-mile-per-hour winds.

Instead of attributing the destruction to God, we tend to reassure ourselves that, in spite of it all, God is with us in the destruction, with us in the suffering, weeping with us. What we imply in this, but don’t often say, is that, deep down, we know God is not in control. And secretly, we give thanks for that. Naturally, we then ask where exactly is God in the midst of tragedy and suffering. This existential question doubles as an unconscious and fragile prayer of thanksgiving and relief. While we may feel desolation and alienation from God in the midst of great natural disasters, we also feel grateful — hopeful, even — that God isn’t orchestrating all the pain and destruction in the world. It is a relief not to be worshipping a God who sends tornadoes, earthquakes, tsunamis, disease, and pestilence. It is a relief not to pray to a God who indiscriminately kills children with the same heavens which declare God’s glory.

God is not in control of the weather. Thanks be to God, God is not in the business of controlling anything.

But if God isn’t in control in the midst of such destruction, then who is? Something more sinister? Maybe something more dangerous than a sinister being. Perhaps no one — and nothing — is in control. It is a scary and disorienting thought to begin to consider God isn’t our bodyguard protecting us like the divine Secret Service from the suffering and tragedy in our world.

We find this idea jarring because I think we misunderstand what divine power is. God doesn’t control the weather, because that isn’t the nature of God’s power. God’s power is something stranger, more paradoxical.

God’s power is in the giving up of power, in the act of disarming divine omnipotence in favor of covenant and relationship with creation.

God’s power is in the act of becoming empty (kenosis), in becoming one of us.

God’s power is in incarnation and immanence, not omnipotence and distant transcendence.

In the gospel of John, Jesus tells us that when we see him, we see God. There’s a popular aphorism based on that notion, suggesting the radical nature of the Christian faith is not that Jesus is like God, but that God is like Jesus. And Jesus is in the business of emptying himself of power to the point of utter alienation and forsakenness by God. So what if God is indeed like that, like Jesus?

But, you might argue, there is a story in the gospels about Jesus and his power to control the weather. And it’s true. In the gospel of Mark, a terrible storm rises on the sea, threatening to swamp the disciples and the boat they are in. They are terrified, undone at the prospect of capsizing and drowning. They are baling water from the boat, struggling with wind-whipped sails, hanging on for their lives.

Jesus, meanwhile, is sleeping.

“Don’t you care that we are perishing?” they finally shout at him to wake him.

Jesus rebukes the wind and commands it to quiet down. “Peace! Be still,” he says, and it is a rebuke directed as much at the disciples as it is at the wind.

The disciples marvel at his power, asking, “Who is this, then, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”

We are like the disciples. We want God to calm the wind and seas. We want to shout at God, “What’s the matter with you? Don’t you see we are perishing? Don’t you see so many of us — children, even! — have already perished? Wake up, God! Stop sleeping when we need you most!”

Like the disciples, we believe the power — the divine — is in the ability to control things. We assume, like the disciples, that the miracle is in Jesus rebuking and calming the storm.

But if you notice, Jesus only reluctantly uses his power. He doesn’t seem to want to do anything. He wants to keep sleeping! He goes so far as to rebuke his disciples for even asking for his help. He calls them faithless. This storm-calming power isn’t the kind of power Jesus came to demonstrate. Rather, it is the exact kind of power Jesus came in order to give up, to empty himself of. It is the same power he rejects when he refuses to throw himself from the pinnacle when he is tempted in the desert, the same power he turns down when he refuses to kneel before the Adversary, that same superficial power that controls earthly things.

As much as we might like, this isn’t a story, I don’t think, about Jesus’ ability to control the weather. He is bothered to do it and is bothered that his disciples even asked. This is a story, rather, about how little we believe God to be with us in the midst of an overwhelming storm. It’s about how, deep down, maybe we don’t really believe that a God-with-us is actually enough. It’s about how what we really want is a God who is in control. And it is an indictment of the disciples and of us.

I don’t really think the miracle in this story is about Jesus calming the storm and taking control. The miracle in this story is that Jesus with the disciples in the water-logged and weatherbeaten boat, experiencing the same terrible storm, the same terrible waves, the same terrible danger.

And that alone should have been enough.

God’s power isn’t in the control of creation or of people, but in being in covenant and relationship with them. It isn’t in imposing the divine will or insisting on its own way but in sojourning with us as we fumble around and make our way in the world. God’s power is not in miraculous interventions, pre-emptive strikes in the cosmic war against suffering and evil, but in inviting us to build a kingdom out of love, peace and justice with God. God’s power is not in the obliterating of what is bad in the world, but in empowering us to build something good in this world — even if that is something as small and life-changing as constructing storm shelters at every public school on the tornado-strewn plains.

And isn’t this true power? Instead of enforcing control and solutions onto the world, God’s power is revealed in coming alongside us, journeying with us, suffering with us, and even staying with us in the boat when the storms come.

The omnipotence of God isn’t about having all the power. That’s would turn God into an insecure narcissist. Rather, the omnipotence of God is in the sharing of power.

About David R. Henson

David Henson received his Master of Arts from Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California, after receiving a Lilly Grant for religious education for journalists. He ordained in the Episcopal Church as a priest. He is a father of two young sons and the husband of a medical school student.

  • David Williams

    On the one hand, I’d humbly disagree. A tornado is part of the “plan,” but it is…as you observe…neither necessary nor punishment. It is simply part of the complexity of an astoundingly generous creation, one we fall afoul of because we’re tiny, fragile creatures. But that’s just a quibble. I think the theology of invitation you articulate here is far more reflective of the nature of our loving Creator than the peculiarly punitive interpretations you get in some corners of our faith. Good thoughts!

    • http://patheos.com/blogs/davidhenson David R. Henson

      I can take that point, certainly. It would make for an interesting theological conversation — a theology of natural disasters.

  • Ruth Shaver

    David, I so wish I had been able to summon this eloquence during my ordination process way back when. There is much truth here that I have known but not been able to articulate half so well! Thank you. Praise God for omnipotence of a radically different kind!

    • http://patheos.com/blogs/davidhenson David R. Henson

      Thank you so much, Ruth! That means so much, especially with all the nervous butterflies with the ordination coming up in a month!

      • Ed Pacht

        I believe that God is indeed all-powerful — BUT, if He were not capable of refraining from having His own way, that would be something less than omnipotence. He is powerful enough to make Himself stand aside and allow His creation to be what it is. He allows me to be what I am (flawed though I be) and to make my own mistakes, even though He is capable of making me a robot. There’s a beauty in that, even though I can’t always grasp it, and even though it sometimes results in pain.

      • TallySkeptic

        Would you rather have things like they are or have all human persons be part-robots with “limited free will” by which they could not physically harm other persons? I’d surely choose the latter.
        There is a common misconception that free will is an all or nothing kind of thing.

    • TallySkeptic

      Unfortunately, David has created his own idiosyncratic meaning of “omnipotence.”

      • http://patheos.com/blogs/davidhenson David R. Henson

        Yes, that is the point. It is a reframing of this notion based on the revelation fo God in Christ.

      • TallySkeptic

        If a god did exist and he could not prevent a tornado, he wouldn’t be omnipotent, according to the commonly held definition of “omnipotent.” If a god did exist and he could prevent a tornado and he did not, then he would not be perfectly good, but would be unethical (at least once).
        Using your own idiosyncratic definition of “omnipotence” is not helpful and just misleads people.

      • http://patheos.com/blogs/davidhenson David R. Henson

        It isn’t misleading when I pretty clearly explain myself in the post. Perhaps you out to read the post as it is rather than with your assumptions. TThe issue here is one of reading comprehension, apparently.

        You are arguing based on presuppositions the post actively argues against.

      • TallySkeptic

        Unfortunately, you don’t “pretty clearly explain” yourself in the post. But, if you’d like to do so now, then you will stop side-stepping by a variety of means (including focusing my supposed flaws in expertise) and answer the question I keep asking you. Here’s the question for about the fifth time: “Do you believe that if God did exist, he would be unable to prevent a damaging tornado or he would be able but choose not to?”
        It is your responsibility as a scholar and a defender of the faith to make your presuppositions specific, clear, relevant, and honest. You are not doing this.

  • Heather Alarcon

    Thank you for these beautiful words! Other than my believe (and hope) that we are ultimately promised the obliteration of evil (how that will happen is of course a different topic) I am in agreement with you! I cannot worship a god who was “in control” of all the tragedy in this world. It is a hard concept to share with those who take comfort in the “it was God’s plan” point of view, but as I like to point out, why would we be instructed to pray, “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” if everything here was already his will?

    • jjsmith

      I always think of that prayer not so much as asking
      (supplication) for God’s will to be done, but as affirming (acknowledgment)
      that, by God-with-us (Immanuel), God’s will is done through us. Therefore, as
      in this post’s example, the weather is simply a meteorological phenomenon; how
      we deal with it (empty ourselves, don’t judge; respond rather than react) is
      God’s will playing out through us. I really like what David suggests about rather
      than Jesus being like God, that God is like Jesus.

      • TallySkeptic

        You are just ignoring the fact that most prayers are requests for favorable intervention.
        What is the point of a prayer of mere acknowledgement? If God existed, would he need to be reminded of what he had done?

    • TallySkeptic

      If God did exist and he did not intervene in human affairs, then he would not instruct us to pray. What would be the point?

  • Robert Landbeck

    The problem is not that ‘God is not all powerful’ but that this reality, contrary to two thousand years of wishful thinking theological apologetics and theodicy is not active in the world at all. And if he has any ‘plan’ at all, it will most likely be, that when our species finds itself between the proverbial rock and a hard spot, where it becomes obvious that every political, religious and intellectual tradition has failed to turn humanity off the slippery slope towards it’s own self made hell, to demonstrate by omnipotence, the difference between a true revelation and the theological counterfeit of history!

    • TallySkeptic

      Or more likely — there will be no “true revelation” at all.

      • Robert Landbeck

        Except that it may have already happened! and if material spreading on the web ‘demonstrates’ [meant literally] itself to be authentic, we could see religious tradition staring in their own theological abyss and a humbling of secular skepticism.

        So like it or no, a new religious teaching, testable by faith, meeting all Enlightenment criteria of evidence based causation and definitive proof now exists. Nothing short of an intellectual, moral and religious revolution is getting under way. To test or not to test, that is the question? More info at http://www.energon.org.uk,

      • TallySkeptic

        You assume that God exists and that he is producing a revelation already. I think those two claims are indefensible. On the first, the occurrence of the numerous destructive tornados in Oklahoma is strong evidence against the claim.
        The bottom line is that an all-powerful (or very powerful) and all-good (or very good) god cannot exist at the same time that destructive tornados occur in Oklahoma. If you think this is possible, then rationally demonstrate that it is possible. If you think it is happening, then provide evidence for it.

      • Robert Landbeck

        I just happen to be reading/studying what a amounts to a new revelation right now, free off the web for anyone interested. A new moral insight and the path of faith by which to realize a new moral imperative. With the offer, nay Promise, of direct cause and effect evidence within an experience of transcendent power and change, I intend to begin testing it myself very shortly. And if it does what it claims to do, then the last two thousand years of Christian history are out the window and into histories own dustbin of oblivion; thus explaining the theodicy paradox. While ‘religion’ may exist, tradition as we know it has never had anything to do with God. No more than a theological counterfeit. God has not been active in the world for almost two thousand years. And it appears as if things are just getting started!

      • TallySkeptic

        Supply the link so we can check into it.

      • Robert Landbeck
      • Robert Landbeck

        No problem, and this is just one of them! To check it you’ll have to test it! There is no opinion, however learned, that trumps testable reality.
        http://www.energon.org.uk

  • Scott

    Thanks for this inciteful post. I was raised in a Calvinistic Reformed church and now in my fifties I am struggling with a whole lot of issues including theodicy (plus hell, plus creationism as in literal 6 day..) Your writing here has eased my mind some what.

  • Hanan

    If God is the creator of nature, then he is sill implicated and responsible in all the innocents lost in natural disasters. In fact, which is worse: A god that sends natural disasters to kill people, but that it is ultimately part of a plan that we cannot grasp, or, a God that created nature but that things happen randomly? How would a conversation go in Heaven if the latter was the case?

    Little girl: God, why did I have to die in the tornado? Was there a reason?

    God: {{shrugg}}. I don’t know. It just happened. Sorry.

    • http://patheos.com/blogs/davidhenson David R. Henson

      Little Girl: God, why did I have to die in the tornado? Was there a reason?

      God: Yes. Because a bunch of bureaucrats couldn’t find a few extra hundred dollars to build a storm shelter and the city didn’t update their emergency plan to qualify for grants.

      It’s a little on the juvenile side to blame God for natural disasters.

      • Hanan

        What are you saying? That all death counts of natural disasters is purely on the doorsteps of man that didn’t build shelters? What would you have said 300 years ago? What about diseases? Why are you ignoring that either way you cut it, God is still implicated in all these things. No less that a contractor is responsible for a building that just collapsed, even though he didn’t lift a single hammer

      • http://patheos.com/blogs/davidhenson David R. Henson

        What I am saying is that it is juvenile to blame God for natural disasters because in doing so there is a false assumption that God controls the weather (which of course is the point of the post).

        It may help to read a bit about my assumptions regarding God and creation. http://www.patheos.com/blogs/davidhenson/2012/02/giving-thanks-for-darwin-on-evolution-weekend/

        My response to your scenario (which I didn’t find theologically accurate) was more on par with a sarcastic quip not what I actually think God would say. We are not living 300 years ago so I have no idea how I would respond then. Thanks be to God the Enlightenment destroyed the notion that God is punishing us with or in control of the weather and natural disasters. See: 1755 Lisbon earthquake.

      • Hanan

        Hmm. Episcopalian. Explains some stuff. But it does not respond to what I wrote on top. Please respond: God causing a specific tsunami or causing a specific pandemic himself or not, does not matter in the end. If He is the creator of all, he is still implicated. He is still responsible. And it seems even worse to say that natural evil simply occurs with no reason. This actually makes God sound worse.

      • http://patheos.com/blogs/davidhenson David R. Henson

        Please read the blog I posted and you will understand my issue with the theology inherent in your assumptions about creation (which I do not share).

      • Hanan

        I read it, and I know you don’t share it. You feel more liberated. I get it. But please explain how God is not responsible if he is the creator of all? Forget the part of him controlling everything. I got that part of your theology. But even so, how is he not responsible?

      • http://patheos.com/blogs/davidhenson David R. Henson

        This comment treats creation as if it is a single historical act in which God alone has agency. If you had read my previous post, you would have understood I do not share the premise of your question.

      • Hanan

        What does evolution have to do with my question? What does all of us being equal creators have to do with my question? Whether God created all at once or slowly or had nothing to do directly with the weather, he is still Commander in Chief. Remember “the buck stops here”? So again, please respond. How is God not implicated in diseases and the rest of the natural phenomena’s that kill innocent people? Remember my contractor analogy? What of my premise don’t you agree with? How does it make sense NOT to say that since God….is God he is responsible at the end of the day toward his creations even if it happened through natural means. He STILL is the creator of that natural means.

      • http://patheos.com/blogs/davidhenson David R. Henson

        This is probably the last time I will reiterate my point, because I don’t think you understand what I am saying here. You refer to God as Commander in Chief. It is a premise I do not share and am arguing against in this post.

        A more appropriate analogy (though not complete) would be akin to an adult child and her or his adult parent. The parent is technically a “creator.” The suffering or joy the child experiences is not directed by or controlled by the parent.

        I wish you peace.

      • Hanan

        No offense, but it seems the more I learn about Episcopalian theology, the more I ask “what’s the point?” So God is not the creator of all? Ok.

        BTW, your analogy not only is not complete, it fails from all perspectives. I am sure your other readers will see that too.

      • http://patheos.com/blogs/davidhenson David R. Henson

        I could not resist.

        My analogy certainly fails from all perspectives. I think I get what you are saying here. I mean, there’s no sense in orthodox Christianity that God is a parent and we are God’s children, you know, like God the Father or anything. But yes, God the contractor? That’s all over our sacred texts.

        The point, of course, is the last three paragraphs! It is incarnational theology, inflected with process theology, not Episcopalian theology. If you want to know what our theology is, read our prayer book. Lex orandi, lex credendi.

      • Hanan

        >I mean, there’s no sense in orthodox Christianity that God is a parent and we are God’s children, you know.

        That isn’t where your analogy fails. You said:

        “The suffering or joy the child experiences is not directed by or controlled by the parent.”

        Well that depends in what context. What if the parent built shelving with no support and stacked heavy things on top. The shelves collapse. Is the parent not responsible? Whether the child feels joy or anger is secondary to the issue of whether the parent is responsible for the crash.

        My contractor example actually meets what you originally said. That God does not directly cause anything. That’s fine. But neither does a contractor when building a home. He doesn’t life a finger. Yet he is still responsible since it is his project from the beginning.

        >If you want to know what our theology is, read our prayer book.

        Or you will just have to explain it. You do believe God is the initial creator do you not? You do believe he created the laws of nature don’t you? You do believe in evolution do you? If he is the INITIAL author of all these mechanisms, than HOW is he not implicated?

      • TallySkeptic

        Your point is a very good one. If God did exist, he would be guilty of irresponsible engineering. If this were the case, then he would not be perfectly good.
        My additional point is that if God did exist, he would also be guilty of bystander apathy, and this would be another mark against his perfect goodness.

      • http://patheos.com/blogs/davidhenson David R. Henson

        Both of your points regarding my analogy infantilizes humans and treats them as powerless children. I reject that on theological grounds, among others.

      • Hanan

        >Both of your points regarding my analogy infantilizes humans and treats them as powerless children.

        How? All I am saying, is JUST like humanity is responsible for what it does, God MUST be responsible for what he DID. Look carefully at what I just wrote. I did not write what he “DOES.” I will give you that God may not actually “DO” a Tornado. But God still “DID.” Meaning, he created the laws of natural to include natural evil. So if he DID, he is still responsible.

        Now, you can say that is not your theology. But in order for you to say that you must say that God is not the creator of the universe and all the natural laws within it.

      • http://patheos.com/blogs/davidhenson David R. Henson

        You have characterized natural disasters as evil. This is about the most simplistic and silly understanding of both the natrual world and also of the nature of evil.

      • Hanan

        >You have characterized natural disasters as evil.

        Ah, so now we are getting somewhere. So you don’t characterize them as evil. Fair enough. But they DO cause untold suffering, do they not? So we are back to the same question of, “If God is the creator of existence and its laws, (and disasters and diseases are a byproduct of those laws), how is God not implicated”?

      • TallySkeptic

        It is good to differentiate between evil and suffering. A tornado which hits a populated area will cause suffering. A person having powers of foreknowledge and influence who fails to prevent the tornado is evil, at least part of the time. (“Evil” is religious terminology, and I prefer the term “unethical” or “morally wrong.”)
        Presumably a god could prevent a tornado from causing immense suffering in several ways: 1) Not making tornados in the first place (your main point with which I agree). 2) Dissipating tornados just after they form. or 3) Deflecting tornados from places where people live. There are probably other ways, but those seem to be the main ones.
        If God did exist and had the powers of foreknowledge and influence to prevent a tornado but did not, then he wouldn’t be a good person. And this conclusion contradicts common claims of religious people that God is perfectly good or at least very good.

      • TallySkeptic

        To the contrary, both of my points regarding your analogy treats humans as adults capable of rational thinking. You are engaged in more dodging.

      • http://patheos.com/blogs/davidhenson David R. Henson

        If my mother or father builds me a shelf which is going to fall on me, I probably am not going to stand under it and wait for it to do so. I will go get my tools and fix it. Better yet, I would’t rely on a parent to build me a shelf. Rather, I would build it with them. That way I have a little agency in the process.

        Again, it is not dodging because I disagree with your premise and want you to engage with the post rather than with a preoccuption with a (simplistic) theology of creation.

      • TallySkeptic

        If your father is a good parent, then he will not build you a shelf which he knows is going to fall on you.
        If God did exist, he would not build tornados which he knows are going to kill, injure, destroy, and cause suffering for human beings.
        If you agree with this, then say so. If you don’t then explain why. Answer directly and honestly; don’t beat around the bush.

      • http://patheos.com/blogs/davidhenson David R. Henson

        If my father is a good parent, he will not do things that he knows I can do myself and will invite me to do them with me.

        God built tornadoes? I’d like that Lego set. Again, you want this to be a referendum on the nature of creation, and it is a theological subject you have demonstrated significant simplistic thnking on. I will again point you toward process theology anad liberation theology, and ask you to become informed before you act as an authority.

        The problem here is that you want a neat and tidy world, which is reflected in your childish demands for a simple, direct and honest answer — a yes or a no on complex issues — whether you are a person of faith or no. It is dualistic thinking and lacks any or thoughtfulness. In manyy ways, it is the exact argumentativeness which I find in fundamentalist camps. And indeed, it is a fundamentalist understanding of faith that your arguments are based upon.

      • TallySkeptic

        For a good parent, the principle of protection supercedes the principle of training. If your son begins to run out into the street chasing his ball, and you see that a car is coming and is going to hit him, you don’t sit back and think “He needs to learn to do things on his own.” No, you grab him or yell at him to stop, or take some other protective action. If God did exist, then he would similarly prevent a tornado before it creates havoc for people.
        If God exists and he is all-powerful or even very powerful, he does have that Lego set. That’s why I keep asking you to answer this question: Do you believe that if he did exist, God would not have the power to prevent a tornado or he would have the power but choose not to use it? Please give a specific clear honest answer to this question, and we’ll go from there.
        In this discussion right now, if you think you have relevant knowledge which I do not have (and I think that is unlikely), then it is your obligation to present that knowledge in simple plain English and address my main points clearly, specifically, and honestly.
        Again, please focus on my points instead of on me. You are evading the main issues.

      • Ed Pacht

        Good grief!
        David, you’re a heck of a lot more patient than I am. As it happens I’m far more conservative theologically than you, being a “Continuing Anglican” rather than an Episcopalian — but I have bookmarked your blog among my favorites. I often disagree, but never fail to find thoughts worth considering. I neither comprehend nor appreciate those who read anyone’s writing merely for the purpose of attacking, nor those who simply refuse to accept an authors parameters of discussion. You’ve very clearly stated that your intent does not include carrying on a debate, but both of these commenters insist on doing just that. It’s about as mannerly as putting ones own political sign on someone else’s front lawn. Unacceptable. Their questions evidence a simple and total refusal to hear what you are saying, or to try to find some insight to take away from the discussion. I guess it’s not only the Pope who is infallible.

        On the matter at hand, I think I can see (as they apparently can’t) what you are aiming for. God is powerful enough that He is not required to control everything he could control. If he were so bound, He wouldn’t be all-powerful after all. God is good, because all goodness is measured by Him and by His actions. He is not bound by my idea of what is good, but rather I am obligated to try to define ‘good’ by what I see in Him. Sometimes, as with Job, the answers remain elusive, and we merely need to file them in the category of ‘things we don’t understand.’

        The model of Jesus washing His disciples’ feet and the words he is reported to have said paint a very different picture of authority from that presented by either TallySkeptic or Hanan, a picture of an all-powerful God deliberately laying aside that power — and you are right that Jesus claims that it is only by looking at Him that we can see what the Father is like.

        I take your exegesis of this particular story as being more literal than that which they assume to be the ‘literal meaning’. I’ve always read it that way, even while accepting without reservation the actuality of the miracle as reported. Why was Jesus content to sleep while His disciples panicked for perfectly good reason? Why was He so obviously grouchy when He came to their rescue? Why also was He so grouchy at Cana when His Mother complained about the lack of wine? Was He not, in both cases, yielding to the wishes of His ‘underlings’ even contrary to His own desire? Is this a God who has to have His own way, or one who is big enough and powerful enough to give it up?

      • TallySkeptic

        Good grief! I neither comprehend nor appreciate those who read anyone’s writing merely for the purpose of sheltering the author from criticism and questioning, nor those who simply refuse to accept the author’s parameters of discussion. The parameters of Mr. Henson’s discussion are that he opened a channel of communication to the general public so that people could make comments on and ask questions about his essay in a civil manner. He could have simply offered his opinions and not opened that channel, but he didn’t choose to go that route. When he entered the open marketplace of ideas, he incurred duties. (When he decided to become a scholar, he incurred other duties.) One of those duties is to answer, not evade, simple and direct questions about his ideas, and yet sometimes he shirks that duty. His behavior is about as mannerly as agreeing to testify in court and then walking away from the witness stand when he doesn’t like the tough questions. Mr. Henson’s evasion displays his simple and total refusal to hear what some of his responders are saying, or to try to find some insight to take away from the discussion. I guess it’s not only the Pope who is NOT infallible.

        Your post here only obfuscates the issue even more than before. I’ll pose the same question to you that I posed to Mr. Henson. Perhaps unlike him, you will actually answer it. “If God did exist, would he have the power to prevent the tornados in Moore, OK?” That must be our starting point, and how we proceed depends on the answer. The capacity to produce an effect is different than any possible moral duty to produce or not produce the effect, and you are totally confusing the two. If God did exist, he could be all-powerful, i.e. capable of producing any effect (not logically impossible) and could choose to exercise or not exercise that power in specific situations.

        If God did exist, he would not be “bound” by your subjective idea of what is good, but rather by a Universal Ethics of Persons. If God does not exist, then you cannot see in Him anything from which you can define “good.” And so, you must begin with a definition of “good” which is independent of the issue of God’s existence. In the end, the answers did not remain elusive to Job (or to the reader), but it’s probably just a story reflecting one author’s opinion and a failed theodicy.

        If you believe that if God did exist, he would be all-powerful, then surely you must believe that he would have had the power to prevent the tornados in Moore, OK. Is that correct? If that is your belief, then my next questions to you would be “If God did exist and had the power to prevent those tornados, then would it be morally wrong for him to not prevent them? If so, why? If not, why not?” Please do not dodge the questions like Mr. Henson did.

        You assume that Jesus was divine without presenting any good evidence for this assumption. As I said to Mr. Henson, for Jesus to have been divine, at least one of the reports of a miracle involving Jesus found in the NT would have to be BOTH literal AND true. If at least one was not, then why should we consider Jesus to be any more than a human being and an itinerant Jewish rabbi? Maybe you’d like to pick out one report of a miracle involving Jesus which you believe was intended as a literal report by the author and which you believe to be true. And then defend it! No, I doubt that you would do that since you obviously appreciate Mr. Henson’s evasive tactics so much.

      • TallySkeptic

        The point, the one you keep evading, is that if God did exist and he created our universe (don’t you assent to those two claims?), then he would be wholly or partly responsible for tornados and the damage that they do since tornados are one part of our universe.

      • Hanan

        >(don’t you assent to those two claims?)

        He has to, or else I am not sure what fuzzy wuzzy God he is talking about. And it all funnels down to God being responsible for his creation, which INCLUDES tornados, tsunamis, viruses, cancer etc etc. So everyone is waiting for some sort of response. David can keep saying he rejects this idea of creation, but that would of course not make any sense and lack any consistency.

      • TallySkeptic

        Your analogy does not work since if God exists, he is not a creator of the universe in the same sense that parents are creators of their children. If God exists and he created the universe, then he either made the universe out of nothing or he fashioned already existing materials into our universe, but at any rate he determined how the universe works AND made tornados, knowing full well that they would lead to natural disasters.
        Why do you keep evading Hanan’s perfectly good point?

      • http://patheos.com/blogs/davidhenson David R. Henson

        “He determined how the universe works AND made tornados (sic)?”

        Really? That’s quite the assertion, and not one a number of theologians make.

        I am not evading Hanan’s point. I happen to think Hanan is avoiding my argument in the post and attempting to reframe my post along terms he is more comfortable arguing against.

      • TallySkeptic

        God does not have the power to prevent a tornado or he has it and chooses not to use it? You really should be absolutely clear about this, because I don’t think your essay is clear on this point.
        If God did exist, had the power to create our universe, and did create it (common claims), then surely he would have the power to prevent a tornado. If he has the power to prevent a tornado, doesn’t, and the tornado kills, injures, and destroys, then how could he possibly be a good person?

      • http://patheos.com/blogs/davidhenson David R. Henson

        I am absolutely clear about this in the post. I don’t think that you are understanding my argument in the post because I think you want my post to say something that includes “common claims” and in line with what you typically argue against. I am intentionally writing outside of that “common claims” paradigm.

      • TallySkeptic

        Please be specific on your position on these five common claims, if God exists:
        1. Is God a supreme person, being, or intelligent agent?
        2. Did God create our universe?
        3. Is God all-knowing?
        4. Is God all-powerful?
        5. Is God perfectly good?
        All five of these common claims cannot be simultaneously true, given the occurrence of the Moore, Oklahoma, tornado.

      • http://patheos.com/blogs/davidhenson David R. Henson

        Again, you keep attempting to superimpose “common claims” on a post that is not arguing for or against any of these posts. I understand this because this is what you want to talk about because that is where your comfort level is. But this is not what I am talking about.

        What this original blog post represents is a Derridean deconstruction of the idea of God’s omnipotence, identifying the differance (spelled correctly; it is a Derridean term) as the Christian narrative’s supposition that Jesus is the full revelation of God and Jesus’ take on power is to give it up. Deconstruction is a text-based analysis, focusing on the internal inconsistencies inherent in *every* text, developed by Derrida, a post-structuralist philosopher. This is how I read the Bible, through a deconstructive lens. It gets to a deeper, more complicated insight than the literal, child-like way both you and literalists everywhere read sacred texts.

        This is the content of the post. Your engagement with it couldn’t be further from its subject.

        And it’s because you did not understand it, are not familiar with the literature and are making arguments from the Mythic-Literal faith stage, as described by psychologist James Fowler.

        And just like I don’t argue with the (commonly) children who hold to a Mythic-Literal faith, I have no interest in arguing with you. Because it is a very child-like and stunted idea of both God and of faith. It fails to engage any theology or literature written in say the past 100 years. Your points and questions throughout — which are at this point in the arena of troll-like behavior toward others on this site — fail to engage the actual narrative of creation and what exactly this narrative means (hint: it’s not what you are assuming).

        Further, demanding simply ‘yes’ and ‘no’ answers is not only insulting and counterproductive to dialogue, it is the worst kind of question to ask anyone (Journalism 101). Always ask open-ended questions. In theology, we are more interested in the how is something than the simple is something. The “is something” conversation is, well, plain boring.

        This is not ad hominem but a statement of fact. You simply have no idea what you are talking about.

        You want to have an argument about baseball while everyone else is out playing a football — a completely different game.

        Further, at a certain point, you, with no small amount of self-importance, said I have a moral obligation to answer you. At that point, what little seriousness I had for this conversation evaporated.

        I want you to understand this as clearly as possible: I am not sure who or what you are having a conversation with besides your imagination. Because each post fails to engage the content, the subject and the arguments I am making in my blog post.

        If you continue to make a nuisance of yourself (troll-like behavior) to other commenters here, let me remind you that this is not your space, but mine.

      • TallySkeptic

        When you talk about God, “common claims” (those made by the vast majority of religious people) are always in the background, and you have an obligation to deal with them explicitly.

        You have provided no textual evidence that the story of Jesus’ miracle of calming the seas was intended as anything but literal by the author. And you have provided no rules for discriminating text intended as literal from text intended as nonliteral. Saying that you are conducting a “Derridean deconstruction” is simply dodging the real issues. Maybe you would have liked to write a similar story which you intended to be nonliteral. That is fine, but it doesn’t matter here. What matters is whether the author intended his story to be literal.

        You employ a variety of distractions to avoid answering direct questions about your post and your beliefs, but your favorite seems be telling everyone how educated you are and how uneducated I am. That is an ad hominem attack. So is calling me a child or a troll.

        I’m sorry you feel insulted when somebody asks you to answer a question with two clear alternatives, but these types of questions are necessary when somebody is so dedicated to obfuscation.

        We are both playing football, but you don’t want to play by the rules. The rules of debate require clarity, specificity, precision, logic, parsimony, consistency, evidence, and honesty. Not only are you not playing by the rules, you are whining about them.

        Yes, you have a moral obligation to answer anyone on this blog, not just me, who asks you a simple question to clarify your position. You are making assertions about what is true and right to the public and you have opened a channel of communication to the public. So, you have moral obligations to the public (Journalism 101).

        Now, you are using a threat of banishment to avoid answering my simple question. You are using your full repertoire of dodging tactics. I suspect that you will actually use banishment to evade, but we’ll see. Here’s the question again: “If God did exist, would he lack the power to prevent the Moore Ok Tornado or would he have that power and choose not to use it? Give a rational justification of your answer.” In reference to power here, I am talking about the ability to forsee the tornado and the ability to influence it in such a way that it does not cause suffering and premature death to people. Please get back on track and deal with the substantive issues here rather than wasting time focusing on personalities and expertise.

      • http://patheos.com/blogs/davidhenson David R. Henson

        You question begs the question because you are assuming a premise I do not share. The post is a deconstruction and a reworking of what power is. Again, please re-read the post. I have answered your question. You just don’t like the answer.

        When you engage in dialogue (this is not debate) on a blog, it is incumbent upon a commenter to engage with the content of the post and to familiarize oneself with the common claims of the writer, not to rely on prefabricated common claims with which to apply to all situations. Specifically, you ask me if God is all-powerful. I encourage you to re-read the blog (as I answer the question), specifically the first and opening line.

        Explaining my method of constructing my original post is not dodging the issue. It is attempting to help you understand my post. In truth, it is you who have dodged the content of the post itself and when I attempt to explain it you refuse to listen. This is not dialogue in good faith. Almost every comment you have offered here is an exercise in begging the question. When I point that out, you accuse me of being dodgy, when merely I am objecting both to your premise and implied assertions/assumptions (what you call “common claims” among other things). Your argument is constructed on a straw man, too, as it misrepresents both my positions offered in the post (regarding the nature of power), those to which I have directed you and the breadth of my writing in this space. You disregard my premise saying it is not a “common claim.” Of course it’s not a common claim! Why would I offer a “rethinking” of something and it be based upon a common claim.

        If I am to identify the kind of faith you are representing here in your questions and assumptions about God and power, it would fall into the Mythic-Literal stage of faith development, which is generally found among children, though sometimes it is found in adults. I apologize if you took offense for categorizing your understanding in such a way, and I would welcome a more adult dialogue. And you are welcome to show and offer a more adult understanding of things.

        But literalism is indeed an immature lens with which to view biblical narratives. It also happens to be a decidedly modern one. It is not ancient, nor did ancient writers believe themselves to be transmitting literal truth. This is not a unique or uncommon claim by Christians or by theologians. The gospel writers themselves wrote their stories for specific audiences and with specific messages that reflect the concerns and issues of the day. You conflate literal things with true things and fact with truth, also a modern mistake. The authors of the gospels were not writing stories meant to be literal. The world of that day assumed miracles were a reality and miracleworkers were not uncommon during that time. The miracles recorded communicate something important, but it is not that actual miracles occurred. As theologians, we move past the elementary questions of literalism and to the exploration of meaning.

        I am not implying that I am smarter than you or that you are uneducated. But you are not familiar with the same stream of thought from which I am drawing, and it is not an esoteric stream, either. Part of my issue is that you want to engage in an interrogation rather than actually hearing what I am saying. You fail to listen and demonstrate an unwillingness to learn. You want to jump in without reading the material and familiarizing yourself with what I am actually saying. That is the kind of behavior that would get you kicked out of any graduate-level class. So when I say you don’t know what you are talking about, it isn’t insulting to you. It is an opportunity for you to further your exploration of these ideas or to show me you understand what I am saying. Personally, I think you do yourself and your intelligence a disservice by limiting yourself to one very narrow understanding of religion.

        What you understand as two clear alternatives you have presented are actually fabricated false dichotomies.

        I have no moral obligation to answer anyone on this blog, particularly one who has yet to demonstrate sufficient understanding of the arguments made within the post. I have no moral obligation because I have already answered your question. You just happen not to like it or agree with it. That’s totally fine. I’m not trying to convince you or anyone that what I say is right or true.

        You think we’re debating? What exactly is the proposition we are debating? One of your self-imposed, cookie-cutter, rehearsed “common claims”? No. We are not debating. At least I’m not debating you. You are attempting to interrogate me and my beliefs, certainly, but that is not debate. You’re commenting on a personal blog, and I’m having a great deal of fun riling you up, and I’m enjoying the page views you are sending my way.

        My comments on your behavior here is to ensure a safe space for all who want to comment. Going through and commenting on each person here is troll-like behavior. I don’t ban people for disagreeing with me. Neither did I threaten to. I just reminded you that you are a guest here on this blog. Me? I’ll just start ignoring you when this stops being fun.

      • TallySkeptic

        In your post you did give a poor answer to one of my questions (“If God did exist, would he be all-powerful?”), but you still have not given an answer to the most important and specific question I have asked you over and over again. You just don’t like the question, and that is why you keep dodging it.

        Debate is just a subset of dialogue. By opening a channel of communication with the public for feedback, you are inviting dialogue of all types. You just don’t like the kind of dialogue when people challenge your assertions or ask you tough questions. Your essay on your blog this time seems to be an attempt at a theodicy, and it fails miserably, in my opinion.

        Ok, so let’s take a close look at the opening lines of your essay. You say “God is not all-powerful. At least, not in the ways we tend to define power. For us, power means that we get our way, that we can impose our will upon the world around us, that we can conform others into our images in order to achieve unity and security.” One way we tend to define power, the most common way in my opinion, is that power is the ability of a person (including a hypothetical god) to influence, control, cause, or manipulate events. Your way of defining power sets up a straw man with respect to theodicy. That is why I asked you the more specific question: “If God did exist, would he lack the power to prevent the Moore Ok Tornado or would he have that power and choose not to use it? Give a rational justification of your answer.” For simplicity I’ll just call this “THE FIRST QUESTION.” And you seem bound and determined to evade it.

        I am listening to your explanation of why you are dodging THE FIRST QUESTION and your explanation holds no water. My question is relevant, informed, clear, specific, and sincere, but you refuse to answer it. When I ask THE FIRST QUESTION, I’m not misrepresenting your position, as you claim; I’m asking for a specific clarification of your position and your beliefs in response to your ambiguous post.

        Your attempt to classify my faith and your welcoming a “more adult dialogue” are just more ways of dodging THE FIRST QUESTION. You will try anything.

        Your statement “…nor did ancient writers believe themselves to be transmitting literal truth” is a gross overgeneralization. A more accurate statement would be “Sometimes ancient writers, like modern writers, believed themselves to be transmitting literal truth, but sometimes they did not.” Still, you have given no evidence to justify your claim that the author intended the “calming the seas” miracle to be nonliteral, you have given no rules for discriminating text intended to be literal from text intended to be nonliteral, and you are apparently cherry-picking the miracles you want to believe and not believe on no basis whatsoever.

        When you say “The miracles recorded communicate something important, but it is not that actual miracles occurred,” you seem to imply that NONE of the claims of miracles were literal AND true. If that is the case, then there is no good evidence that Jesus was divine. Without having performed any miracles or without having been closely associated with any, he would just have been a heretical evangelist and a philosopher (not a very good one, in my opinion). Don’t you agree? If so, why? If not, why not?

        Claiming that I am unfamiliar with the stream of thought from which you are drawing, whether esoteric or not, is not relevant and is just another dodge of THE FIRST QUESTION. It is BECAUSE I “actually hear” what you are saying that I ask THE FIRST QUESTION. Claiming that I fail to demonstrate an unwillingness to learn is another ad hominem attack, another tactic in your vast repertoire of dodging ploys. You do yourself and your intelligence a GREAT disservice by your failure to answer THE FIRST QUESTION. You are like the medicine men of the early 1900s who came to town, peddling their fraudulent products, who tried valiantly to squelch the questions of the skeptical audience members. If your product is not fraudulent, then stand up and defend it by answering THE FIRST QUESTION.

        THE FIRST QUESTION does not present a false dichotomy. The two options are exhaustive and mutually exclusive. They cannot both be true at the same time. If you think otherwise, then explain your answer. If THE FIRST QUESTION is too complex for you, then I can break it down into something even more simple: “If God did exist, would he lack the power to prevent the Moore Ok Tornado or would he possess it?” (For simplicity I’ll just call this “THE SECOND QUESTION.”) You and I do not have the power to prevent the Moore OK Tornado. As far as I know, no human person has that power. But I’m asking about God – that hypothetical person you supposedly believe in. (You do believe in God, don’t you? You do believe that God is a special type of person, don’t you?) If God did exist, he would either lack or possess the power to prevent the Moore OK Tornado. There is not a viable third alternative here, right? So do you believe that if he did exist, he would lack or possess that power? Please don’t dodge my questions.

        Yes, you have a moral obligation to answer THE FIRST QUESTION and THE SECOND QUESTION, regardless of whether you think I demonstrate sufficient understanding (by your standards) of your arguments. You may have answered other questions, but so far you have not answered the two specific questions I have posed to you here. You just happen not to like these questions and especially the conclusions to which they will lead. Because you have an intuition about the outcome, and you don’ like it, you DODGE, postponing the inevitable outcome.

        Of course we are debating! What is a debate anyway? Isn’t it a dialogue in which the parties take turns disagreeing with each other and justifying their responses? If you want me to transform THE SECOND QUESTION into a proposition we are debating, here it is: “If God did exist, he would possess the power to prevent the Moore OK Tornado.” Telling me of your great enjoyment at reading the page views I send you and “riling” me up is just another one of your DODGING tactics. What will you pull out of your bag of tricks next?

        Part of your responsibility to ensure a safe place on the blog does not include DODGING questions or attempting to squelch challenges to your position. You did threaten to ban me. Here is the threat: “If you continue to make a nuisance of yourself (troll-like behavior) to other commenters here, let me remind you that this is not your space, but mine.” And this time, you reinforced the threat by saying “…you are a guest here on this blog,” implying that if I continue to ask those pesky little questions which you don’t like, then you will banish me. Now, you are bringing out a new dodging tactic – threatening to ignore me. Please just answer THE FIRST QUESTION or as a starter THE SECOND QUESTION and then maybe we can make some progress.

        Do you think this verse was intended to be literal by the author: “But sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence.” (1 Peter 3:15, NIV) Now, if you think that this verse was intended to be literal by the author (as I do) and if you hold the author in high esteem (do you?), then do you think you have complied with his directive? I don’t think so. Instead, you have dodged my main questions by calling me a troll and a child, implying that I am not listening or uneducated or unwilling to learn, threatening to banish me or ignore me, claiming that my questions are poorly formed, calling attention to your great joy at “riling” me, in addition to other crafty and ungentle tactics.

      • TallySkeptic

        Or is it much on the juvenile side to believe that if God did exist, he would allow a tornado to kill, injure, and destroy?
        You are being flippant and not taking your critic’s (Hanan’s) point seriously.

      • http://patheos.com/blogs/davidhenson David R. Henson

        And you are assuming something I am not about God and also not paying attention to the arguments I make in the post.

      • Hanan

        Of course he has. The point is your argument does not make sense on any level. You can keep saying that God doesn’t directly cause a specific natural disaster or pandemic. Fine. But you can’t say he is not implicated in it if HE IS THE CREATOR OF THE VERY SYSTEM IN QUESTION.

      • TallySkeptic

        I am paying very close attention to the arguments you are making in the post, but you are playing coy and being evasive. Specifically, what am I assuming that you are assuming that you are not assuming?
        Once again: If God does exist, does he not have the power to prevent a destructive tornado or he has the power but chooses not to use it? All that I’m asking for is a direct honest answer.

  • Matt Rich

    Thanks for this, David. I think it’s especially helpful that you pointed out that most people’s natural reaction to reconcile natural disasters and their faith is to unconsciously (most of the time) say to themselves, “Well, it happened, but God is with us.” Even when the stated theology is that God is in control. We need theological voices showing the nature of God’s power in kenosis and incarnation–whether it be in Jesus on the cross or in the slain lamb returning in “power” covered in his own blood.

    Oh and BTW–the tornado designation is EF-5. Enhanced Fujita scale. Might help a lone meteorologist stumbling across your blog take it more seriously. :)

    • http://patheos.com/blogs/davidhenson David R. Henson

      Oh thanks! To be honest, I think my point of reference for that designation was the movie Twister.

    • TallySkeptic

      Would a person of perfect goodness prevent a tornado or allow a tornado to occur and comfort the victims? Well, I think it would be the former. That’s what I’d do. Wouldn’t you?

      • http://patheos.com/blogs/davidhenson David R. Henson

        Well, if you pay attention to the post, I fairly explicitly that the nature of God’s power is not such that it controls the weather.

      • TallySkeptic

        You are still being ambiguous here. If God exists, does he just not have the power to control the weather (prevent a tornado) or he does have the power and chooses not to use it? This makes a big difference. You really need to be clear on this point, and you haven’t been.

  • Scott

    I guess David you’d fall in the Open Theism camp? Can you point me in a direction as to how you handle Biblically the issue of evil – as in say a Pol Pot or a soldier being slain in the street or a 13yo girl being sexually abused by her priest? Is there a hell? I am genuinely seeking an alternative to my Calvinistic upbringing

    • TallySkeptic

      There are only two rational solutions to the issue of evil: 1) Conclude that God does not (or almost certainly does not) exist. Or 2) Conclude that a powerful god exists but he behaves very unethically at last part of the time, be angry with him, and rebel.

      • csalafia

        Settle down, Epicurius.

      • TallySkeptic

        Why settle down?
        Answer my challenges, csalafia. Apparently, Henson won’t.

      • csalafia

        Actually, David has answered your challenges. He’s done so in a very reasoned, gracious way despite your engaging in monologue over dialogue with him.

        You see, the Epicurian riddle is something folks latch on to when they desire to put God in a teeny, tiny box built out of dualistic thinking and the logical fallacies of false choices. It’s the theological equivalent of “let your wife be raped / shoot someone in the face” arguments against pacifism. It’s a premise that accepts no other solution but those on the extremes. It’s not only not ‘rational’, it’s intellectually immature.

        Epicurius believed that the good life was one without pain and that things that brought pain are those defined as ‘evil’. Yet, throughout history, mankind has shone the brightest in times of tragedy.

        The flip side of the Epicurean coin is those who believe that natural disasters are sent by God as punishment for whatever sin they find to be ickiest… in today’s world, typically the (non) sin of homosexuality.

        It is a life free from pain and suffering that tends to make humanity complacent, selfish, prideful, and non-communal. We begin to believe that when things are going well, we don’t need anyone or anything else and that our good fortune is due to our own actions. This is one of the narrative themes of the OT, where, often, the Israelites forgot all that God had done for them, became prideful and self-absorbed, and then civilization crashed down around them.

        You define God as one of two possibilities: 1) Sadistic overlord and puppet-master; or 2) negligent parent. Which is, honestly, a pretty standard response from the atheist camp. Just as Sam Harris does, you dismiss any other possibility, confident that God can only be what you believe God to be. That, my friend, is the very definition of idolatry. Congratulations! You’ve managed to create a God in your own image.

        You also make the relatively common and elementary mistake of conflating evil from mankind and natural disasters.

        When creation came into being, it was called ‘good’, not perfect. Natural disasters like hurricanes and tornadoes are part of an imperfect creation. God does not create nor direct the weather, it is an inherent part of creation. Does that make events like Moore any less tragic? No. What it does, though, is move us towards an understanding that creation isn’t perfect, we are called to live in concert with creation, and that includes weathering the storms.

        You look at things like Moore, OK as the failure of God to protect humanity. It’s a view that abdicates any responsibility for humanity to both live in harmony with creation and to live in community with and care for one another.

        People like you and the Pat Robertson/John Pipers of the world like to “blame” God for “allowing/causing” these tragedies.

        That is the action of those with an immature theology.

      • TallySkeptic

        No, David has done his very best to dodge my challenges through obfuscation, red herrings, and ad hominem attacks. David refuses to engage in effective dialogue; he’s too busy dodging.

        Christians have put God into a box that falls apart. I have not presented a false choice, but a true choice: If God does exist, either he is able to prevent a tornado or he is not. What’s false about that? The options are exhaustive and mutually exclusive. You may not like the options, but both cannot be true at the same time. Since David is not going to be clear on which option he believes to be true, maybe you will tell us which of those options you believe to be true.

        Did the benefits of the Moore, OK, tornado outweigh the harm? If you had the power to prevent it, would you have done so? If so, why? If not, why not?

        I do not believe that if God did exist, he would cause tornados as a punishment, and I have not even implied this. So, you are presenting a straw man.

        So, you believe that if God did exist, he should not have prevented the disastrous tornado in Moore, OK, because, after all, people just gain so much as a result of pain, suffering, and premature death? If you believe this, why? If not, why not?

        I have not presented my definition of God, but presented the definition held by most Jews, Christians, and Muslims, and shown where that leads. Here is the definition: “God is the unique supreme person, being, or intelligent agent who is all-knowing, all-powerful, and perfectly good, who created our universe.” Which part of that do you believe is not part of the commonly held conception of the Abrahamic god? And which part of that do you not accept as probably true?

        No, I have not made the relatively common and elementary mistake of conflating evil from mankind and natural disasters. I know the difference. I’ve been specifically focused on the tornado that struck Moore, OK; it is a natural disaster.

        If God did exist and he created destructive tornados in his “good, but imperfect creation,” then he is accountable for this. He is guilty of irresponsible engineering. If God did exist and he created destructive tornados and just allows them to wreck havoc without intervening, he is accountable for this also. He is guilty of bystander apathy. If God did exist and had free will, then he has made some specific choices – to create destructive tornados and to allow them to destroy the lives of human people. That’s unethical, “evil” in religious terms.

        Yes, if God did exist and he had the power to prevent the Moore tornado and he did not, then that is a moral failure, but it doesn’t abdicate our responsibility to help the victims after the fact.

        No, blaming God is not my thing. How could it be when I think that God almost certainly does not exist? My thing is trying to show people like you and David that “you can’t have it both ways,” and that your conception of God is unreasonable.

      • Hanan

        >People like you and the Pat Robertson/John Pipers of the world like to “blame” God for “allowing/causing” these tragedies.

        Csalafia, maybe we should go back a little. Did God create the universe and the laws of nature?

  • Jim Bridges

    What I find most troubling (as well as amusing) is the ease with which believers make affirmations about God (both positive and negative), e.g., “God is not all powerful.” All such assertions whether we like them and/or find them more amenable to our worldview are products of hubris. This doesn’t mean that we should sit silently in the face of tragedy, although I wish the Westboro Baptist Church would do this very thing. But I think people need to qualify their assertions with the inherent uncertainty of creatures with significant deficiencies in their understanding of their Creator.

  • Jerry Lynch

    Truly wonderful, thank you. I had a sense of what you said floating around inside but could never quite verbalize it. A pre-literate trust, as with a little child who despite the scrape to his knee still turns lovingly to his father, no hint or thought of accusation for the father’s failure to keep him from all harm; but the father is there to comfort and care for the wound.
    It has become increasingly clear to me over the years that this kenosis is necessary in coming to finally have the eyes to see, and without it there can be no true understanding of the gospels. But this sounds so elitist and much like any fundamentalist claiming exclusive possession of truth, or gnostic, gaining a secret knowledge denied to others. Yet the effects of this kenosis is not to make such boasts or be in any way concerned with them. The kenosis is a “turn” (“kensho,” in Buddhism) from a system of belief to a spirit of action. Buddhism emphasizes this more than the Church, which is a real curiosity to me.

    I have saved your blog in my files; something I need to re-read many times. Thanks again for articulating this vital insight so well.

    • TallySkeptic

      The problem is that the human father is not presumed to be omnipotent as God is commonly pressumed to be.
      Nevertheless, if the human father saw that his little child was about to have an accident and injure himself, wouldn’t the human father at least warn the child, if he were a good father? If God did exist, wouldn’t he at least warn the inhabitants of Moore, OK, that the tornado was coming in plenty of time for all of them to leave, if he were a good person?

    • J

      Except the father actually exists: He’s THERE and if he’s even a one-tenth decent father, he offers the child concrete help and comfort.

      God does none of these things. God does not exist. Fuck religion. And fuck you.

  • JDM

    If the god does not control the weather, what’s the point of praying for rain during a drought? This article makes no sense.

  • Gary (NJ)

    I don’t think of the weather when I hear ‘the Heavens declare the glory of God’, but of the stars and planets on a clear night in an area that doesn’t have a lot of light pollution. As for natural disasters and diseases etc., this all a part of our biological existence on this planet and since animals and plants are subject to the same things, it’s clearly not a ‘punishment’ from God. This is one of those Mysteries that we will probably never have an adequate answer for until we return Home.

    • TallySkeptic

      Where’s the mystery?
      If God did exist, he WOULD NOT have ALLOWED the Moore, OK, tornado to occur.
      But, the Moore, OK, tornado did occur.
      Therefore, God does not exist (or very probably does not).
      True premises, sound logic, and thus true conclusion.

  • Steven Elliott

    When the worst things do happen, the dumb-luck tragedies, it’s hard to know where to turn to for comfort. I have been a Christian for over 40 years. When my 18 year old daughter was killed by a drunk driver, nothing I thought I knew about God made sense anymore, and I found no comfort or satisfying answers in traditional theology. I was an adult Sunday School teacher, and I embarked on a 2-year long study of the Book of Job. I figured I might as well study the questions I was already wrestling with. What I took away is that God’s presence is both comfort and answer. I think your essay echoes that, unless I have misunderstood. I do have to point out, however, that in the Book of Job God does “present” himself rather emphatically as the Master of Creation. I don’t like it, and I don’t know how to explain it. The challenge is to trust the love of God and accept the mystery. I assume that if answers were what I really need, God would offer them. What I find I really need is what Job needed too, God’s loving presence – and this is almost exclusively felt in the compassionate human touch.

    By the way, have you read Debbie Blue’s sermon “Sleeping God” (I think that is the correct one), included in her book Sensual Orthodoxy? It treats of the same passage of scripture, and I think you would find a kindred spirit.

    Thanks for your thoughtful essay.

    • http://patheos.com/blogs/davidhenson David R. Henson

      Yes, you got my point exactly. And, I am so deeply sorry for your loss. I cannot imagine.

    • TallySkeptic

      A good person X would PREVENT a great tragedy for another person Y, if person X is able to do so without significant cost to himself. If a god did exist and he were a good person, then he would be meet this expectation of a good person.
      Don’t be satisfied with thinking that a good person X would merely be “present with” or comfort another person Y in his tragedy. You should have higher expectations.

      • http://patheos.com/blogs/davidhenson David R. Henson

        You want a God who controls. No wonder my post rankled you so much. It is actually a higher expectation to suffer with someone.

      • TallySkeptic

        It doesn’t matter what god you or I want. That is irrelevant or of secondary importance.
        A person who prevents a tragedy for another person is higher in goodness than a person who allows a tragedy to another person (when he could prevent it at no significant cost to himself) and joins the victim in the suffering. If you think the converse is true, then your standard of goodness is irrational.

  • TallySkeptic

    In my opinion, although he writes clearly, Henson makes a poor stab at theodicy. One thing that the author is unclear about is whether God (in the unlikely event he does exist) simply does not have the power to prevent a tornado or he has that power and chooses not to use it but instead copes with tornados in another way. To me, that makes a big difference. At any rate, I have some comments on quotes from the article:

    “What we imply in this, but don’t often say, is that, deep down, we know God is not in control. And secretly, we give thanks for that.”

    GW: Who is “we” here? We “know” or we believe? If people are secretly giving thanks that God is not in control, then why do they openly pray to him to control? Seems like a contradiction of two beliefs — “God is in control” vs. “God is not in control.” Of course, I guess we shouldn’t expect religion to be logical.

    “While we may feel desolation and alienation from God in the midst of great natural disasters, we also feel grateful — hopeful, even — that God isn’t orchestrating all the pain and destruction in the world. It is a relief not to be worshipping a God who sends tornadoes, earthquakes, tsunamis, disease, and pestilence.”

    GW: I think Henson is overlooking something important here. When he says that God “isn’t orchestrating” and assumes God does not “send” natural disasters, he is assuming that God does not DIRECTLY CAUSE these things. But this leaves out the possibilities that a) he ALLOWS these things to happen, and/or b) in the creation he engineered torandoes to occur within the universe, knowing full well that they would eventually lead to natural disasters for humans.

    “God’s power is in the act of becoming empty (kenosis), in becoming one of us. God’s power is in incarnation and immanence, not omnipotence and distant transcendence.”

    GW: There are two problems with this: 1) Henson is playing a shell game. He shifts attention from the power to prevent a natural disaster to the power of empathizing with us. He is equivocating on the notion of power. 2) Henson just assumes that an incarnation did occur while providing no rational justification for that.

    “But, you might argue, there is a story in the gospels about Jesus and his power to control the weather. And it’s true…But if you notice, Jesus only reluctantly uses his power. He doesn’t seem to want to do anything. He wants to keep sleeping!”

    GW: Reluctance doesn’t count! In the story, Jesus does in fact control the weather! If Jesus is divine and he controls the weather, then God has the power to prevent tornadoes! Henson is doing reverse cherry-picking.

    “This is a story [the story about Jesus reluctantly controlling the weather], rather, about how little we believe God to be with us in the midst of an overwhelming storm.”

    GW: Or does the story reflect our doubts that any god actually exists? I suspect the story is a fabrication of the author designed to express his opinion that God does exist.

    “God’s power isn’t in the control of creation or of people, but in being in covenant and relationship with them. It isn’t in imposing the divine will or insisting on its own way but in sojourning with us as we fumble around and make our way in the world.”

    GW: This is certainly a departure from common belief. Henson is presenting his “best buddy” theory of God. I claim that if God existed and had the qualities normally attributed to him, he WOULD NOT allow a tornado to do its damage to people.

    “And isn’t this true power? Instead of enforcing control and solutions onto the world, God’s power is revealed in coming alongside us, journeying with us, suffering with us, and even staying with us in the boat when the storms come.”

    GW: No, this is not true power! True power would be seeing that the tornado is coming and preventing it or turning it away to an unpopulated area.

    “The omnipotence of God isn’t about having all the power. That’s would turn God into an insecure narcissist. Rather, the omnipotence of God is in the sharing of power.”

    GW: Henson is not using “omnipotence” properly. Its common meaning is “the ability to control anything not impossible or to control anything it is logically possible to control.” In my opinion, here Henson is implying that God has the power to prevent a tornado, but chooses not to exercise that power because to do so would conflict with his perfect goodness which requires him to share power with humans and not use it to prevent a tornado. I think this is a ridiculous idea. On the other hand, I think that a good person would prevent a tornado which he thought was going to kill, injure, and destroy other people, if he was able to do so without significant cost to himself. Wouldn’t you?

    • http://patheos.com/blogs/davidhenson David R. Henson

      One quick point: You take the story of calming in the storm literally, or appear to. I understand that story parabolically, not as a historical act. It is a parable. The job is not to take a story in the Scripture at face value as if it actually happened, but to interrogate the meaning of it, which I have done.

      Did Jesus literally calm the storm? I don’t think so. And I don’t think that is the point of the story, as I say so in the post.

      I encourage you to expand your breadth of knowledge regarding theology and investigate notions of process theology and liberation theology. You will likely have a much clearer understanding of the streams I am speaking in here and also what I am saying.

      As evidenced by your comments throughout, you both haven’t a clue and you’re very passionate about it.

      • TallySkeptic

        So, do you interpret all the stories of Jesus’ miracles as parabolic, rather than literal? If so, then you have a Jesus who is not divine. If not, then you’ve got to present us with your set of rules for judging one miracle as literal and another as parabolic.
        Instead of focusing on what you believe to be my inadequacies, I wish you’d focus on my specific assertions, claims, arguments, and challenges. Otherwise, you’re just engaging in ad hominem attacks as dodges.

      • http://patheos.com/blogs/davidhenson David R. Henson

        Actually your first point is not only simplistic, it is untrue, relying on an understanding of the Gospels that most first year seminariarians don’t even share.

        My point is that your main assertions are based on premises that I find extremely lacking in theological sophistication.

      • TallySkeptic

        Please specify the “first point” which you think is simplistic and untrue and please provide a direct and honest answer to my question. Once again, instead of focusing on my supposed inadequacies, deal with the questions, challenges, and points.

      • http://patheos.com/blogs/davidhenson David R. Henson

        The belief that interpreting Jesus’ miracles as parabolic means one cannot believe Jesus is divine. I can tell from your comments you are not well-read in the literature surrounding these issues. Thes assumptions you are making, like the one above, rely on literalism in regard to sacred texts. This is such a fundamentally simple way of understanding these things. You are coming from a place of argument that lacks nuance and engagement with the literature of the day.

        Again, I am asking the same of you, to focus on my post, rather than the supposed inadequacies.

      • TallySkeptic

        No, you are not asking the same of me. I am focused on the inadequacies of your post, claims, arguments, and evidence, not on the inadequacies of your education or character. On the other hand, you are focused on the supposed inadequacies of my education or character. Here, you do it again by claiming I am “not well-read in the literature surrounding these issues.” Even if that were true, it would be irrelevant. You have a moral obligation to answer my challenges in a prompt, clear, relevant, and honest way, instead of throwing in red herrings about my background.
        If not a single claim about a miracle of Jesus is both LITERAL and TRUE, then there is insufficient evidence to believe that Jesus was divine. So, we can cross one off the list — the one about Jesus calming the wind and waters; about 25 more to go.
        What did the author intend? Did the author intend that the “calming the weather” miracle to be literal and true? Almost all Christians an atheists do. I think that you should defend your position. What in the context makes you believe that the AUTHOR did not intend the story to be literal?
        I believe that there are claims in the Bible of God or a divine person controlling the weather. Do you think all the authors who wrote them intended them nonliterally?

      • J

        No. I was always taught that 1 Corinthians 15 pretty clearly spells out that no, it is not acceptable to believe these things as parable or metaphor. That Christ was raised or he wasn’t. You can believe either way (I believe he was not, and, in fact, never even existed in the first place). But the notion that, well, it’s meant to be understood metaphorically, has no support in history or literature.

        And you ARE coming across as pretty fucking elitist here, I have to say. The notion that only a narrow class of priests can properly understand the mysteries of religion, well, that’s some religion but not Christianity. “We cook for the masses” and all that, y’know?

        The world really does seem divided between atheists like me, who have actually read the Bible, and religious people like you, who really haven’t.

      • J

        You know the saying, right: That atheists believe things a first-year theology student would be horrified by.

        And also, that 95% of average churchgoers believe things a first-year theology student would be horrified by.

        So maybe the truth is that first-year seminarians are neither the only nor certainly the most-informative concerned party we should consider.

  • Hanan

    >And secretly, we give thanks for that.”

    Really? What believer cares to believe in God that has no control? Imagine your disappointment if you ever found out he was. It would ruin your whole theology. “Darn it God, why do yo have to be in control. Who do you think you are…..a God?”

  • Hanan

    So is David going to bother responding to the MAIN point?

    • http://patheos.com/blogs/davidhenson David R. Henson

      The main point is one that you ignore. This post is about the nature of God’s power. The issue is you want to begin with creation and your assumed theology of creation is both narrow and misinformed, which is why I directed you to other resources to help expand your understanding of what creation is. Your main point is one about creation, but it is a shift from the content of the post, which is to understand the power of God through the lens of Jesus.

      • Hanan

        You are slightly mistaken. It isn’t about creation per say. I’m talking about creation because we have to move slightly back to clarify my point. Now, I don’t know whether a good God WOULD want to save his creatures from every disaster as TallySkeptic says. I mean, why have death at all after all? Man is supposed to die. Should he come protect us against infections too? I think TallySkeptic’s reasoning at some point falls apart. BUT, that does not mean God is not implicated in the laws he himself created.

        You say you would not rely on a parent building a shelf? Come now!!! Were those your feelings when you were 10? There are things beyond your control. For humanity at large AND for our history things have not being in our control. The billions of women and children that have died due to botched births DUE to the way the reproductive organ of a woman is built? Is God not implicated at all? When tsunamis occur?

      • TallySkeptic

        I never said that God WOULD want to save his creatures from every disaster. My focus has not been on “every disaster,” but on the disastrous Oklahoma tornados. In addition, my focus has not been on what God would want, but on how God would behave, if he did exist.
        We are both making the point that if God did exist, then he would prevent tornados which cause immense suffering to humans. We are just looking at culpability at different points in time, you at the point of creation, and me at the point after creation and just before the tornado. Either point is an opportunity to prevent tornados.
        I don’t know why you’d dismiss infections and death on a list of opportunities for a god to intervene but you include death due to botched births and tsunamis on your list of opportunities for a god to create in a nice way.
        Perhaps we could draw the line at “great suffering” or at “at moderate suffering or greater,” and give a god a break in creating or allowing “minor suffering.” A disastrous tornado is quite a bit different than a broken fingernail.

  • Hanan
  • Robin Meng

    What a long, long discussion. When my 37-year-old husband died without warning – people asked me if I was mad at God. The truth is, I was not. I was heartbroken, depressed, shocked – all those human values – but not mad at God. If I believe God hears and knows my heart, and I do, then he was well aware of my feelings. I did not expect God to raise my husband from the dead – but rather to guide me along the path I had to walk and to find in him, comfort. I didn’t think I was being tested or tried. Life, this dimension of life, was unfolding as it does. So on some level, I have to agree with David. What mattered then and now, is my relationship with God. And, further, if God is omnipotent, then all these words only hint at the answer. To define it, is to limit it. Something beyond my understanding does not frighten me.

  • http://www.inamirrordimly.com/ Ed_Cyzewski

    Fantastic post David. I did a study of predestination and the presence of God in the midst of tragedy, and I found many of my answers in the incarnation. There is something miraculous about God with us and in us, and working with us to bring change tot he world that we often undervalue and overlook.

  • Rob Tisinai

    If God created the universe – if He created everything in it, along with all the physical laws that govern its development over time, and if He made
    every one of His creative choices knowing exactly how it would play out, then
    yes we can say that He controls everything and is responsible for the tornado.

    I’d be relieved (honestly!) to see where that chain of reasoning breaks down, or to know which of those premises Christian theology would allow me to jettison.

  • J

    Why would I worship that god? Really: Why?

    If I’m in pain, rest assured I have no need at all for someone who ‘weeps’ with me. I can weep for myself just fine, thanks. Misery does not really particularly love company in my case.

    *And isn’t this true power?*

    No, it is not.

    *Instead of enforcing control and solutions onto the world, God’s power is revealed in coming alongside us, journeying with us, suffering with us, and even staying with us in the boat when the storms come.*

    Utter crap. Really: Complete pablum. Beyond pablum: You aren’t just offering us a placebo. No, you want us to swallow POISON.

    At least the real Christians and Taliban want us to bow to a god *they* actually believe in.


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