Monday, September 2, 2013


[Previously in God Of Our Silent Tears, the Purple Rider of the Sage, challenged basic assumptions about God including absolute omnipotence and the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo. In Chapter 6, he will begin naming core truths about God's nature -- starting with Love & Beauty, before going on to more divine attributes that tell us how God responds to suffering and evil. God of our Silent Tears is now available to order on line from The Cathedral Bookstore (Los Angeles)]

There is no word that is more difficult to use appropriately than ‘God’.”
Nicholas Lash, The Beginning And End Of Religion

            If God is a dog drowsing
            the quintessential dogginess
            of the universe, of the whole
            canine race, why are we
            No dog I know
            would hurl thunderbolts
            or plant plague germs
            or shower us with darts
            of pox or gonococci.
            No. He lies on his back
            awaiting the cosmic belly rub,
            he wags his tail signifying
            universal love; he frolics and cavorts . . .
            But God is all too human . . .
                                                From “If God Is A Dog” by Erica Jong,
                                                At The Edge Of The Body 

            “God” is a rich word, the richest word. Liberating it from the patriarchal image, the big guy in the sky dominating everything, breaks open the way to see more of who God is. We could write shelves full of books about God. But for purposes of this book, we will look at just a few characteristics of God that mean God can sustain and empower us in the face of tragedy – without being a dominator.

            God is our moral azimuth, the North Star that orients all our values, and our values orient our actions, indeed our whole life. What makes God “God” in our eyes defines what we believe life is about. If God is God by virtue of absolute power, we worship power. If God is God by virtue of knowing everything, we worship knowledge. If God is God by virtue of being the judge of all, we worship judgment.

            We become like the God we believe in. Our image of God determines what we esteem, what we do, and ultimately who we hope to become.[1] A God who is waiting on the edge of his seat to exact wrathful judgment on a fallen world will have worshipers who judge New York or Baghdad to be evil and bomb the wicked city to oblivion. Because God is the infinite mystery, we cannot prove our beliefs about God with ordinary evidence. But we can discern good religion from bad religion by the effect of the religion on the characters of its adherents. “By their fruits shall you know them.” There are a lot of bad ideas about God claiming to be Christian views, or worse the Christian view.  So in this chapter, we will rethink the meaning of the word “God.” We will ask seriously “what are the defining characteristics of God? What makes God God?”

            As we examine any doctrine of God, we can test it by asking: is this picture of God truly our highest value? Is this image of God genuinely beautiful? Is this God the kind of person we want to become? Our goal in this book is to speak of God in ways that console, strengthen, empower, and liberate -- to engage in “emancipatory God-talk.”[2]  As Archbishop William Temple said, “If you have a false idea of God, the more religious you are the worse it is for you – it were better for you to be an atheist”.[3] So let’s examine a few of the basic things the Christian tradition has said about God, things which make all the difference for how God responds to suffering.


                        St. John teaches us that God’s very essence is love.[iv] We experience God’s love in blessings, as the General Thanksgiving in the Book of Common Prayer[v] puts it, “our creation, preservation and all the blessings of this life, . . .  the means of grace and the hope of glory.”[vi] Love, not power, is the defining essence of God, the very godness of God. God is God not by virtue of omnipotence, but by virtue of omni-love, omni-delight, omni-compassion. This is a claim about the meaning and value of existence that runs directly counter to power narrative Christianity. Canadian theologian Douglas John Hall, speaking particularly of his own Lutheran tradition, says:

                        Because for Luther human existence is a frail and uncertain
                        business, divinity for him is not first of all sovereign omnipotence
                        (as it was for Calvin) but astonishing compassion.[vii]

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             Even before there was a world for God to love, God was already loving. There was a beginning of the universe and the universe will come to an end. But there is no beginning and no end to the divine love out of which the universe is born and into which it will finally merge.

            God’s love is irreconcilably inconsistent with literal omnipotence because divine love is not just affection for what pleases God. Princeton theologian Diogenes Allen aptly expresses the way God loves when he describes how we are called to love. Allen says we are to love everything in the realm of reality that is independent of us. In other words, we love it even if we can’t control it, and therefore it is not precisely as we would like it to be. Allen writes,
            (W)e must love that which is absolutely independent of us.
            We do recognize differences between good and evil,
            between suffering and happiness. But . . . we are
            to love them nonetheless; that is, we are not to allow
            our tastes, desires, preferences, notions of utility,
            or even our moral judgments to prevent our loving them. . .
            (T)o remove the self is to prevent the operation
            of our tastes, desires, ideas of utility and the rest
            from (blinding us to) things as they are – whether useless
or useful, good or bad, painful or pleasant, they are to be loved,
            as a whole and in each detail, because they are there.[viii]

As long as we are in control, we do not really love things as they are. We love rather the reflection of our own wills, the satisfaction of getting our own way. Loving only what suits our tastes is like gazing fondly into a mirror. To really love is to delight in and cherish things which are not as we would have them be. Human love is so readily ensnared in and twisted by our compulsion to judge!  So to speak of loving that which does not please us, that which is not as we would have it be, we have to imagine love greater than we can experience. At best we know a hint of it on rare occasions.

            Divine love appreciates the sheer reality of something, the suchness of it, its very independence from control. God creates that which is not God, so that God can love an other, love those who are truly different – even that which is ungodly. God relinquishes control so that God can flow out of Godself in love for that which is not God, that which is not like God, that which is not as God would choose for it to be. God loves a world which is sometimes utterly unlovable in our eyes.

            Divine love shocks our sensibilities. When Jesus revealed divine love, people were appalled. Does this mean God loves sin and evil? I would follow Augustine in saying evil is not a thing to be loved or hated and sin is love disordered. God loves the love which motivates the sinner, even though the sinner’s love is disordered. God’s love recognizes the distinction between good and evil. God loves into them both, but loves differently. The good is loved with celebration and delight. The evil is loved into (note the all important preposition) with grief and reconciling invitation. But God always values the suchness, the is-ness, the being of everyone and everything.

            Students routinely ask me, “What about Adolph Hitler? Does God love Hitler? Must we love Hitler?” Simone Weil was the theologian most radically committed to belief in God’s all-inclusive unconditional love. She would insist on loving Hitler, but she died in 1943 as an active participant in the Free French resistance. Love in the face of evil manifests as resistance, not acquiescence or condonation.

            Once we realize that literal omnipotence and love are mutually exclusive, we have to make a choice. Will we define God as Perfect Love or Total Dominance? Scripture, logic, and much of the Christian tradition are on the side of love. But ultimately we have to search our own hearts. The word “God” represents our most deeply held value. “God” means what we hold to be the highest good, the truest truth, the loveliest beauty. So, what do we regard as the most valuable, the most important thing – love or dominance?

            The point of defining God as love instead of dominance is not to get God off the hook for evil.[ix] The point is to see how God responds to it, but that may still leave us with an issue to struggle with. A God of love instead of power may not be what we want in the face of life’s troubles. Some of us are reluctant to accept that God’s power is limited because those limitations might undermine our trust that God can deliver us. That objection, however, rests on the assumption that our problems can be solved by power. Much human suffering cannot be redeemed by powerful interventions, understanding “power” to mean dominance and control, but it can be redeemed by divine love. As Douglas John Hall says,

Who through power tactics, can eliminate the self-destroying habits of a son or daughter fallen prey to hard drugs? What nation through power alone can ensure world peace? . . . There is no sword that can cut away sin without killing the sinner . . . . (T)here are situations where power is of no avail. They are most of the situations in which we human beings find ourselves! . . . They are most of the situations God finds God’s Self in too.[x]

There are better ways than dominating power – not quick fixes, but ways that genuinely redeem us and make us whole. Instead of dominance, love is power like the electricity that lights a lamp, or fire that warms us on a cold night. Love heals and redeems. That is God’s kind of power. To change our understanding of God requires us to rethink how we hope to be saved from affliction. To change our understanding of God requires us to rethink our assumption that problems can be solved by Rambo-style interventions.

            How late I came to love thee, O Beauty, so ancient and so fresh.
                                                                        St. Augustine of Hippo

                        Beauty is the chief attribute of God according to 18th Century American Calvinist, Jonathan Edwards. David Bentley Hart cites the Church Fathers in support of Edwards’ view:
                        God is beauty and also beautiful, whose radiance shines upon and is                                          reflected in his creatures . . . the splendor that gathers all things . . . into                                           itself. (De divinis nominibus 4.7).[xi]
Scripture attests to the beauty, the splendor, and the glory of God.[xii] St. Gregory of Nyssa retold the story of Moses as a quest for the beatific vision, for the ever-expanding beauty of God.

                        Moses: though he is filled to overflowing, says Gregory,
                        he always thirsts for more of God’s beauty, . . . ; and
                        such is the action of every soul that loves beauty: drawn on
                        forever by a desire enkindled always anew by the beauty that
                        lies beyond the beauty already possessed, receiving the visible
                        as an image of God’s transcendent loveliness, . . .[xiii]
Consider the implications for our relationship with God, and for our sense of what life is about, if we thought of God primarily in terms of beauty to be enjoyed rather than dominating power to be feared. This ancient understanding of God has been understated in recent centuries. But today we are in the midst of a reawakening of theological aesthetics, and are rediscovering the relationship between art and religion.[xiv]

                        What does God’s beauty have to do with God’s response to suffering? Perhaps everything. Philosopher Marilyn McCord Adams says that God’s beauty redeems even “horrendous evils,” the kinds of suffering which make life seem no longer worth living. Her argument rests on the following points:
            1.         God is so unimaginably greater than creation that God is of a totally                                  different order from our earthly experience or us.

            2.         God’s goodness includes God’s beauty, which is immeasurably greater                                     than “created goods or ills.”

            3.         “Contemplation of Divine Beauty” engulfs the harm we have suffered, even                      “horrendous evils.”[xv]

God redeems by the power of Divine Beauty to attract, console, and heal rather than the power of domination.[xvi] Desire is the tug of the infinitely beautiful vortex that is God. Delight, the culmination of desire, is our foretaste of ultimate joy. Even horrors grow dim in the light of resplendent glory. St. Paul said, “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing to the glory that is to be revealed to us.”[xvii]

            This hope for healing in the “kindly light” of God’s glory does not mean some greater good of cosmic order justifies the sacrifice of individual victims. In order to fit the goodness of God, the restoration must be sufficient to make each and every victim of evil whole, to give them such a good thing that it makes their life worthwhile despite the horrors they have endured. Such horrors are so great that they can be defeated only by the incomparable goodness of God.[xviii]

            The redemption of each individual is essential to the morality of God. Ivan Karamazov lamented over the suffering of a little girl left to freeze in an outhouse on a Russian winter night. To his credit, he would not have his own eternal bliss purchased by such an atrocity. But finally, Ivan has missed the point. The little girl’s suffering does not purchase his eternal bliss. Her eternal bliss redeems her from the atrocity she suffered – an atrocity which was not part of God’s plan but was always contrary to God’s will. David Bentley Hart, who takes Ivan’s argument quite seriously and respects Ivan’s protest as essentially Christian, says:

                        . . . (O)ne might even suspect Ivan of a willingness to freeze
                        (the little girl) forever in the darkness of her torments – as a  
                        perpetual symbol of his revolt against heaven – rather than
release her into a happiness he thinks unjust.[xix]
Heaven, the beatific vision, eternal bliss – our destiny in union with God – is not a cosmic good purchased by the blood and tears of individuals. Rather it is the redemption of each individual from wrongs that were just that – wrongs – torments that should never have had to be endured. It is finally arriving at the joy upon which “the strange beauty of the world” depends. . . .

[1]Such a diverse lot as constructive theologian Gordon Kaufman,  feminist theologian, Sallie Macfague, Catholic transcendental theologian, Karl Rahner, and liberation theologian, Dororthee Soelle, agree that our definition of God  matters very much because God images shape who we become and determine our values.
[2] Cheryl A. Kirk-Dugggan, Refiner’s Fire (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001) p. 156.
[3] Quoted in Kenneth Leech, True Prayer. (San Francisco: Harper & Row Publishers, 1980) p. 3.
[iv] I John 3 and 4, particularly 4:16.

[v] The Book of Common Prayer, in its various editions and adaptations, contains the order of worship for churches of the Anglican Communion. Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer originally redacted it during the reign of King Edward VI. Cranmer drew most of the prayers from earlier liturgical text. But the General Thanksgiving is his own composition.

[vi] Book of Common Prayer (New York: Church Publishing, Corp., 1986) p. 101.

[vii] Douglas John Hall, The Cross In Our Context: Jesus And The Suffering World, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003) p. 22.

[viii] Diogenes Allen, The Path of Perfect Love. (Cambridge: Cowley Publications, 1992) p. 15. Allen is drawing on Simone Weil’s comments on Irish Murdoch’s The Unicorn.
[ix] If God is love – not dominance – the logical problem of evil misses the point rather badly. Literal omnipotence, which is the foundation stone of our logical problem, is inconsistent with our most basic claim about God’s nature. This rejection of omnipotence does not completely resolve “the problem of evil.” It does not deny that God has substantial power. To say God is not omnipotent is not the same as saying God is helpless or uninvolved. Maybe God cannot prevent all evil, but could God prevent some of the horrendous evil and affliction that is apparently tolerated? If penicillin could eventually be discovered and save so many lives, could it not have been discovered centuries before? The existential cry of “why” remains. But the tidy logical knot that seemed to disprove the Christian God has not done any such thing. It has only contributed to the refining of our language, to reminding us that talk of literal omnipotence is reckless and unreasonable.

[x] Douglas John Hall, at 98-99.
[xi] David Bentley Hart, The Beauty Of The Infinite, p. 177.
[xii] Psalm 27:4; Zechariah 9:17; 1 Chr. 16:29; 2 Chr. 20:21; Psalm 90:17; John 17:24.
[xiii] David Bentley Hart, The Beauty Of The Infinite, p. 195.

[xiv] Hans Urs Von Balthasar, The Glory Of The Lord: A Theological Aesthetics trans. Brian McNeil (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1989). David Bentley Hart, The Beauty Of The Infinite. See generally, Art, Theology, and the Church, ed. Kimberly Vrudny and Wilson Yates (Cleveland: The Pilgrim Press, 2005). “Creation’s being is God’s pleasure; creation’s beauty is God’s glory; a Taboric effulgence, upon all things . . . that proclaims God’s    splendor . . . . The delightfulness of created things expresses the delightfulness of God’s infinite distance. For Christian thought, then delight is the premise of any sound epistemology: it is delight that constitutes creation and so only delight can comprehend it . . . .” David Bentley Hart, The Beauty Of The Infinite, pp. 252-253.

[xv] Adams, p. 147.
[xvi] Cheryl Kirk-Duggan says the beauty of the divine image in the human soul draws us toward the contemplation of God’s beauty in just this way: “If every human being is created imago dei [in the image of God], then (they creatively express) . . .holiness. That holiness . . . is resplendent in color, light, sound, fury, and love. Such holiness is beautiful and aesthetic. Aesthetics is a body of knowledge that comes from experiencing imagination, sensation, and the feeling of the idea of the beautiful. Beauty, along with truth and goodness, is a transcendental, a property that must accompany being and exists within every being. Beauty, therefore, is a path for the desire and longing that goes back and forth between God and us.” Cheryl A. Kirk-Duggan, p. 155.
[xvii] Romans 8: 18.
[xviii] Adams, p. 155.

[xix] David Bentley Hart, The Doors Of The Sea, pp. 88-89.

No comments: