Omnipotence again

Not 24 hours after my last post, I find myself wishing I hadn’t written it, or at least wanting to modify it. Oh, I stand by pretty much everything I said. The God we get is not the God we thought we wanted. And God’s omnipotence isn’t the omnipotence we want for ourselves.

But I look it over, and it rather sounds like I don’t think God is powerful. It sounds like I’ve evacuated “power” of all content. A certain school of thought would say that the theory of language I’m working with does that with everything we say about God, and needlessly. And they may be right. Kevin Hector is basically the smartest person I know.

But more immediately important than the philosophy of language is the fact that I woke up this morning feeling like the account I gave yesterday isn’t the God I pray to. Now of course an account of God isn’t God. But when I say morning prayer in a few minutes (arguably having evacuated the concept of morning of all meaning), I will lift up a situation that is for me a pit of despair. And I will say to God, “You are more powerful than this.” The situation may or may not change perceptibly (I’ve been praying about this one for some time now, and it only seems to have gotten worse), but there is nothing else I know how to do other than pray God’s power against it.

I guess that this is what I would add to yesterday’s post: I don’t know how God will respond to my prayer. I may not be able to perceive the difference it makes in this life. I can’t tell you what this power is. But let me be very clear: it is the greatest thing in heaven and earth. It lives in me, it lives in my church, and it has never forsaken those who call upon it. And if you don’t know what I’m talking about, close your theology book and open your Bible (and your prayer book!). “Greater is he who is in you than he who is in the world.”

Just remember the primary revelation of this power that conquers the earth and never forsakes the needy is a man crying in his last agonizing breath, “My God! My God! Why have you forsaken me?” And this from the one who calmed the storm! He is the all-powerful God, and he is dying on a cross.

Somehow, both of these things were true for Jesus. And as for us, a servant is not greater than his master.

Is God in Charge?

“So if God’s not in charge, who is?”

We had decided a few minutes before, during a sort of talk back time that we customarily have following our sermon, that God is not “in charge” in any usual sense of the phrase. It was the feast of Christ of the King, and our chaplain had preached a very good sermon to the effect that Jesus’ kingship is rather the opposite of what kingship normally is, that he doesn’t focus and exercise power, but rather gives it up to others. This turned in to a discussion of what kind of power God exercises in the world as a whole. Our deacon, who has suffered several horrific losses in the last few months, told us that one of the hardest parts was coming to accept that God is not in charge. For him, this means that we cannot pray hard enough or act good enough to make God intervene and set things the way they should be (or at least the way we think they should be). We left the details a bit fuzzy. We weren’t concerned with whether God could rule the world but won’t, or just can’t rule the world, with most people in the room seeing to tend toward the latter option.

But then someone raised the question: “If God’s not in charge, who is?”

This was one of those times when there is actually a fairly straightforward theological answer to the question. Of course God is “in charge” inasmuch as “in charge” means anything at all, but “being in charge” is a human category, and no human category can be affirmed of God without also being denied. For us, power is a zero sum game. If I have power over you, then you lack however much power I have. If I am in charge, then you are not in charge, and you’ll do what I tell you (otherwise I’m not really in charge). But God’s power does not start where someone else’s power leaves off. God’s power is everywhere and in all things, but that doesn’t mean that God is micromanaging all things. What God’s power does mean is simply not available to our understanding, except what God has shown us in Jesus (which is, as every Christian theologian since Paul and maybe Jesus himself has admitted, something quite absurd).

Fittingly, the New York Times opinion blog ran a piece yesterday attacking the notion of divine perfection as being both unbiblical (or at least not in keeping with the Hebrew Bible) and incoherent. Omnipotence in particular came under fire. According to the author, the fact of injustice demonstrates that God cannot be both just and omnipotent (he’s hardly alone in this opinion, though I would point out that this isn’t a question of coherence—though I might agree with his other point that divine perfection is incoherent). He suggests, however, that the problem isn’t with God, but with the notion of omnipotence, which he takes to be a Greek imposition on the Hebrew tradition.

I used to have a fair amount of sympathy for this line of thinking (Charles Hartshorne’s Omnipotence and Other Theological Mistakes rocked my world in college, and you should read it if you haven’t), but I’m afraid I’ve rather soured on it over the years. First, on theological grounds, I think it misunderstands divine power. To deny God’s omnipotence, we have to have some concept of potency which would be applicable to God. We don’t. God is all-powerful, but it’s not any sort of omnipotence we can understand (or, for that matter, desire for ourselves). We have to let God show us what it means. Second, and deserving of its own post, there is no pure Hebrew tradition undefiled by Greek culture. When Hebrew culture came into contact with Greek culture, it reacted against it, but also assimilated certain aspects of it. Many of the books of the Hebrew Bible are strongly influenced by Greek thought, and Jewish writers produced many books in Greek that relate explicitly to Greek ideas (sometimes modifying them in Jewish ways, sometimes arguing against them). Some of these are included in the Apocrypha, which some Christians believe is part of the Old Testament. If you say that only those developments that occurred before Alexander the Great count as Hebrew tradition, then you’re disqualifying all of second temple and rabbinical Judaism (which I assume you don’t want to do).

BUT, all of this being what it is (at least in my head), I didn’t spring any of this on them last night, either in the reflection time or in our conversation afterward. There are any number of ways to reconcile the existence of God and evil, some of which are perfectly coherent. But you have to deal with the fact that shit happens whether you have a coherent account of omnipotence or not. You can believe that God is all-powerful or not, but God is still a disappointment. I want God to be in charge as much as the next person. I find my theological striving helpful, but at the end of the day, our disappointment with God has less to do with our inadequate concepts than with our expectations and desires.

But as with our concepts, might our desires and expectations also be inadequate? Maybe when we look at Christ our crucified king, we need to learn not only what to think, but what to hope for. And that is the work of prayer.

The Daily Office

The genius of the English Reformation was that it took the life of prayer that had been the heart of monastic devotion and made it the heart of parish life for both priests and laity. This involved some changes. In the old prayer books, there are two offices instead of seven, each incorporating elements of the others. Nobody who has a vocation in the world could realistically be expected to make it to seven prayer services a day. Something is lost in this. But something is also gained, at least potentially. Each parish and our whole communion is joined together by its common prayer life. At the heart of it is our praying of the psalter and reading of scriptures from all parts of the Bible. It unites us to one another even when we pray the offices alone, and it opens up a space several times a day in which God can communicate to us through the words and songs that have been divine vehicles of communication before.

I don’t mean to sound sentimental, of course. Sometimes it’s a pain in the ass. There’s a reason most Christians don’t know most of the psalms. Many are boring, tedious, or just plain disturbing, and you have to figure out what to do with them. Sometimes, you just want to finish the damn thing so you can eat breakfast or go to bed. And finding a good time for evening prayer is a constant challenge, and it’s hard to start up again after you miss a few days.

But frustrations notwithstanding, this has become the heart of my prayer life, especially since I’m dividing my weekends between two cities, and am not always worshiping with the same congregation on Sunday.

The weird thing for me is that even though the Daily Office is inherently communal, I usually pray it alone. Most Episcopal parishes do not pray the office daily together (at least not to the best of my knowledge). My campus chaplaincy in Chicago does evening prayer on Wednesday as part of our main weekly program, and is experimenting with morning prayer and compline one day a week. I’m glad we do this, but it is a very different experience when you only do it once a week. I am told that in England, one of the main duties of the parish priest is to officiate the Daily Office, even if nobody else comes. But in the Episcopal Church, if we do it at all, it seems we usually do it in solitude.

I’m not sure this is a bad thing (nor a good one). In fact, I kind of prefer praying it alone. I have my own routine, my own preferences where the prayer book gives multiple options, and being an evangelical Protestant at heart, I like being able to give myself some extended time for extemporaneous prayer (“authorized intercessions”). That last bit especially is part of who I am, and I’m happy to have found a place for it within the rubrics of my adopted church. I love the fact that the rubrics of the office make me confess my sins, pray a psalm or two, read scripture, say a canticle, profess my faith, and pray for the peace and salvation of the world before I start in on my own problems. I’m also trying to figure out how to fit in some time of silence or centering prayer. Thus customized, the Daily Office is exactly what I need right now.

But is an inherently communal practice that manifests our communion supposed to be so customizable? Have we subtly changed what daily prayer is for Anglicans by doing it mostly alone? I don’t have an answer, except to suggest that perhaps this is why it’s important to do it in a group every once in awhile. There is a discipline to praying by oneself, and there is perhaps a discipline to doing it with other people (when someone inevitably rushes through the psalm or picks the stupid collect).