Our question this week came from Stan:
Hi Tony, here’s the question haunting me to the point of possibly leaving the faith- In an existence full of such pain and evil, how can we still claim that God is both all-powerful and unwaveringly loving? When I’m given the standard answer that trials exist because “He has a plan we don’t know” that “has a purpose for the greater good”, all I can think is that an all-powerful god ought to have methods that cause less pain for those he loves. I can accept an all-powerful god who doesn’t completely love his creation, or an absolutely loving god who can’t control everything, but not both. Thoughts?
There were many great responses and threads, and they keep coming in. Now it’s my turn.
Stan, my normal response to you would be along the lines of Jürgen Moltmann, who has greatly influenced my theology. It goes like this:
1) God is, by (Aristotelian) definition, that Being of which no higher Being can be thought. God is all-in-all, alpha and omega.
2) Prior to creation, God was all there was. In order for God to have a relationship with a creation that is other than Godself, God withdrew himself enough to make room for creation (zimzum). This was God’s first act of self-limitation.
3) The Hebrew Scriptures record generations of God’s interaction with humans, almost all of which are episodes of God deigning to interact with humans on a relatively human level. These, too, are moments of self-limitation.
4) Failing all other means of relating positively toward humans, God performed the ultimate act of self-limitation by becoming human in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. God even went so far as to experience death and, as Jesus cries from the cross, the absence of God. God experienced godlessness.
5) Having truly experienced everything that humanity experiences, God found reunification with all of creation through Jesus the Christ. But as long as creation is still in its pre-eschatological state, God’s self-limitation is in place. God has willingly forsaken omnipotence in order to have a true, mutually voluntary, open relationship with creation. Thus, evil and pain and suffering, bombings and shootings and earthquakes, are a necessary aspect of human and divine existence.
This, I think is a beautiful and intellectually honest answer to the question of theodicy. But a quote I read recently from John D. Caputo deeply challenged me.
In his magnum opus, The Weakness of God: A Theology of the Event, Caputo has the following endnote, which is meant to destroy what I have just proposed. He refers to a plan such as mine (and Moltmann’s) as “a more enlightened and progressive version of orthodoxy,” and he continues:
In order to show solidarity with the weak, God voluntarily empties Godself of power, freely chooses not to exercise this power, and this divine kenosis does not contradict omnipotence but manifests it. I do not travel down that path because it smacks of a ruse, a kind of docetism, in which weakness is an even more profound demonstration of power, and because it re-implicates God in evil. Omnipotence cannot simply wash its hands of evil simply on the grounds that it has chosen not to intervene.
I think that’s a damning charge, and I take it seriously. Kenosis — God’s act of self-emptying, as fêted in the hymn of Philippians 2 — is an idea that brings much comfort to many Christians who have left behind the idea of a God who somehow needs to balance “love” and “justice” (as though those were opposing ideas). For Caputo to dismiss kenosis — in an endnote, no less! — is a serious.
First of all, I think that Caputo’s charge of docetism is misplaced. Those of us who embrace the idea of God’s self-limitation do not understand it to be anything less than fully real. God’s inhabitation of the fully human Jesus of Nazareth was neither a phantasm nor a magic trick. It was no ruse, in order to let God off the hook for the pain of the world. It was, instead, God’s active embrace of humanity. It was a learning experience for God.
So, how about Caputo’s charge that kenosis is an attempt to let God off the book, to let omnipotence “simply wash its hands of evil on the grounds that it has chosen not to intervene”? I don’t think it sticks, as long as you come to the conclusion that God is implicated in evil.
You see, Stan, most people pose the question just like you: God is all-good/loving, and God is omnipotent. Yet there is evil, so what gives. Many say that God’s omnipotence doesn’t exist — that what Harold Kushner famously wrote, and it’s basically how some people read Moltmann. But Moltmann and I don’t actually say that God is not omnipotent — we say that God has voluntarily and temporarily abdicated the characteristics of omnipotence in order to have a more equitable relationship with humanity.
But Caputo is right, this still means that God is ultimately liable for the evil in the world. On my theory, God could reclaim omnipotence at any moment, step in, and stop evils and horrors. The fact that God doesn’t, implicates God.
Does this make God less than perfectly benevolent? Maybe. Maybe God also abdicated “benevolence” at creation, or at least perfect benevolence. Or maybe God’s all-in-allness means that our conception of “goodness” and “benevolence” is swallowed up in God’s fullness.
I know this: No one — not the Jews, not the Romans — was responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus. God was was ultimately responsible. That blood is ultimately on God’s hands. God could have stopped it; God didn’t. And so we’re all left to wonder about God’s responsibility for that act of evil, and for all acts of evil.