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.

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2 comments on “Is God in Charge?

  1. […] 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 […]

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