As part of my continuing education I am seeking to think with a little coherence about how we can say God "works" in the world.
I have begun with Richard Beck's blog series On Warfare and Weakness, his comparison and synthesis of two American authors; John D. Caputo: The Weakness of God, and Greg Boyd: God at War.
Beck's thesis is that we could perhaps put together aspects of Boyd and Caputo to address this problem:
If this life is not a real fight, in which something is eternally gained for the universe by success, it is no better than a game of private theatricals from which one may withdraw at will. But it feels like a real fight. (William James)
This, I believe, is the source of excitement in any vision of Christianity. People want to be in a real fight. They want to see battle lines. They want to be on the side of the good fighting against evil. We want to hear those great battlefield speeches…. Beck
I am not sure that I like the warfare imagery, warfare is not something for the people of peace, but he has a point. We want to matter. We want to feel like life matters. And we do want to feel we are on the side of good.
Basically, I think progressive Christianity struggles because it often fails to give people a real, honest-to-God, bible-thumping fight. More precisely, progressive Christianity has a lot of fight in it, but it has often struggled to articulate that fight in robustly biblical ways. (Let alone the major problem of progressive Christians being too reactionary, focusing much of their fight against conservative Christians.)
So in these posts I'd like to try to paint a picture of what such a bible-thumping fight might look like from the perspective of progressive Christianity. (Beck: Post One)
The Liberal-Conservative fight is a major feature of American political and religious life, but Beck's overall outline of progressive theological reaction against sounding like the conservatives who eschew marriage equality and over-patriotic political and social conservatism still carries truth here in Australia.
In our more secular Australia any theological dialogue and reflection on life is severely limited by theological illiterac,y and a general reaction against 'god botherers' and 'wowsers'; all of which is now magnified by child abuse scandals within church institutions.
Outside of any reaction against religious conservatism, our issue is more one of finding relevance; what is a language that relates to Australian experience of life in any way at all?
We have often "reduced our vision" (Beck) in an attempt to detoxify and demythologise the language of conservative theology; ie, we have abandoned no longer relevant traditional language and imagery which describes God. We need to 're-mythologise' with a language that has some considerable intersection with Australian C21 culture.
Even casual observation of advertising and media shows that the mythologies/great stories of love, good vs evil, meaning, hope etc are still at the root of people's motivations and attempts to find meaning.
Paul's vision in Galatians is that we live in "this present evil age"; (Gal 1:1-5) a life where we feel trapped by forces which seem beyond us to control, and which are even beyond the best efforts of nations. His famous words "For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do--this I keep on doing," in Romans 9:17 express this dilemma not only at personal level, but within our organisations, businesses and nations. And in the church. Experientially we have common ground with most people. We may wish to explain the causes of the dilemma, and posit solutions, which are quite different from Paul's answers, but we all know the dilemma.
This is Beck's summary of Boyd.
At its heart God at War is a theodicy, an attempt to explain evil in the world….
A key biblical observation for Boyd is that the problem of evil wasn't a problem for the OT and NT writers. Evil wasn't a theological conundrum. Evil wasn't an intellectual puzzle. Evil was a given, it was taken for granted. Evil was expected, and its existence didn't cause a theological crisis. … Beck
Theodicy is a major issue for our time. We are 'post Auschwitz'; we live with Sudanese refugees from a 30 years-plus war. We live with constant media exposure to the horrors of the world, almost as they happen. People in Australia watched the twin towers in 2001 as it happened. The notion that there is a good God who still allows this to happen is plainly ridiculous if God is omnipotent.
According to Boyd … there has been a shift away from the warfare worldview of the bible to what Boyd calls the classical-philosophical worldview. According to the warfare worldview of the OT and NT life is experienced as a battle between the good and evil. Much of creation is in revolt, rebelling against the rule of God. Given that perspective, evil is an expected and regular feature of the world. We encounter evil all the time, from moral evil to evil within the created order as seen in disease and death. And given this warfare view--that evil is to be expected--the encounter with evil doesn't create a theological problem for the biblical writers….
By contrast, the existence of evil is a dumbfounding question within the classical-philosophical worldview. This worldview was created in the fusion of Christian theology with Greek categories of thought, where God was defined by categories like omnipotence, omniscience, omnipresence, and omnibenevolence. In light of these Greek categories the problem of evil becomes a real theological puzzle as God is assumed to exercise what Boyd calls "omnicontrol." In the classical-philosophical worldview, where God is believed to be providentially in control of every event, the existence of evil is a real theological problem. God, in this worldview, seems to be the origin, creator and source of evil. Or, at the very least, God uses evil for some higher, providential purpose. Consequently, rather than raging or revolting against evil Christians peer into the tea leaves of tragedy trying to discern "God's plan" for all the pain we are suffering. (My emphasis) (Beck Post 2)
The Ethics of God
"God's plan" is nauseating for any thinking and compassionate person. As soon as we go down this path we deserve to lose people's attention. If God has a plan that includes the suffering of Auschwitz then God is a monster. Auschwitz was one camp in one Holocaust. "R. J. Rummel, a professor of political science at the University of Hawaii, estimates that between 1937 and 1945, the Japanese military murdered from nearly 3 to over 10 million people, most likely 6 million Chinese, Indonesians, Koreans, Filipinos and Indochinese, among others, including Western prisoners of war." (Wikipedia)
This deals with only one side of one war…. and also indicates why I am uncomfortable with the language of warfare. Warfare, always evil, had any romance bankrupted in the trenches of World War 1.
But to continue…
But in the warfare worldview there is only rage, resistance, and revolt in the face of pain and suffering. According to the warfare worldview, there is nothing good in the death of a child or a cancer diagnosis. To try to discern "God's plan" in such things gets God very, very wrong. …
If evil is believed to serve a higher purpose, then clearly one's sense of urgency in fighting it is compromised, while one's ability to render it intelligible is diminished...[T]he New Testament exhibits a church that is not intellectually baffled by evil but is more spiritually empowered in vanquishing it, [by contrast] the Western tradition has more frequently exhibited a church that is perpetually baffled by evil but significantly ineffective in and largely apathetic toward combating it. (Beck, Post 2)
The Omnipotent God
This is a huge challenge for traditional Christianity. There is no keeping an omnipotent God. It also needs to explain how this situation of warfare comes about. How is it that evil has such a hold in the world? Beck says Boyd's answer follows the classic angelic revolt theory:
… given the belief that God created the world …. how did this warfare come about?
According to Boyd, the origin of evil is to be found in the rebellion of angelic beings exercising their free will. Creation is structurally corrupted and infected because there was an angelic fall from grace, a fall the pre-dated human history.
Theologically, the benefit of that view--an angelic fall that corrupted and now oppresses the world--is that it draws a bright line between God and the forces of evil waging war against God. The practical upshot of this theological move is that it sets up a theology of revolt for the church. Beck (Post 3)
Angels and Demons?
Belief in literal angels and demons makes for good airport novels and movies, but is poor theology. Whilst the existence of evil, and our frequent powerlessness to address it, borders on the obvious, Ockham's Razor cuts any credibility out of an hypothesis for the reality of angels and demons.
As Beck suggests, we need to follow the thinking of scholars like Walter Wink if we are going to use the language of "powers" that is implicit in Boyd's suggestion about the origins of evil, and if we are going to use Paul's claim that we live in an evil age where God is breaking in to set us free.
Put simply, any human system becomes more than the sum of its parts. It takes on a life of its own. It becomes a power.
[The powers are] religious structures (especially the religious undergirdings of stable ancient and primitive societies), intellectual structures ('ologies and 'isms), moral structures (codes and customs), political structures (the tyrant, the market, the school, the courts, race and nation). The totality is overwhelmingly broad. Nonetheless, even here with careful analysis we observe that it can be said of a these "structures" what the Apostle was saying concerning the powers:
(a) All these structures can be conceived of in their general essence as parts of a good creation. There could not be society or history, there could not be Man without the existence above him of religious, intellectual, moral and social structures. We cannot live without them. These structures are not and never have been a mere sum total of the individuals composing them. The whole is more than the sum of its parts. And this "more" is an invisible Power, even though we many not be used to speaking of it in personal or angelic terms.
(b) But these structures fail to serve man as they should. They do not enable him to live a genuinely free, human, loving life. They have absolutized themselves and they demand from the individual and society an unconditional loyalty. They harm and enslave man. We cannot live with them. Looking at the human situation from within, it is not possible to conceive how man once unconditionally subjected to these Powers can ever again become free.
(c) Man is lost in the world, in its structures, and in the current of its development. But nonetheless it is in this world that man has been preserved, that he has been able to be himself and thereby to await the redeeming work of God. His lostness and his survival are inseparable, both dependent upon the Powers.
The problem with angels and demons is when we imagine them as spooky disembodied entities. If we are not trying to defend their existence, Yoder's description of powers is non controversial. Classic Pauline passages such as Ephesians 6 take on a new power.
For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities… Eph 6
The other problem with the angelic revolt theory is that it includes the notion that we have taken the side of the rebellious angels.
Martyn's Galatians (1:1-5 Prescript) outlines two forms of apocalyptic eschatology. One is forensic apocalyptic eschatology.
In forensic apocalyptic eschatology things have gone wrong because we have rejected God which brings about death, corruption, and the perversion of the world.
Such a theology slots into the assertion that there has been a "fall." While this is accepted doctrine in much of the Western Church, it is at odds with our strong understanding that we are in fact evolving. Fall theology creates more problems than it solves.
Martyn asserts, however, that Paul has a Cosmological Apocalyptic Eschatology. Here God is definitively breaking into the system. Things are wrong and God is setting them to rights. In such a view there is place for an evolving species.
[In] cosmological apocalyptic eschatology
evil anti-God powers have managed to commence their own rule over the world and led humans into idolatry. (Martyn)
To include the insights we gain from evolutionary science we need to abandon The Fall and go back to (an Irenaean?) theology of original blessing.
How is God God?
Although the 'Wink-Yoder' understanding of powers frees us from simplistic and unbelievable notions of angels and demons, it does not explain how if God is really God this battle be allowed to be happening. What 'happens to God' when we abandon the notion of omnipotence. We are not tribal Israel with a regional God, albeit the greatest God. We expect a God who 'cuts it,' who is credible in a world of galaxies and nanotechnology, and which is still only a button press away from nuclear annihilation, and faces immense dangers from climate change.
How does a weakened God work?
The mindset here is not to defend omnipotence; it is indefensible. Rather, we should ask, since God clearly is not omnipotent, how can God 'be,' if indeed, God still is.
It is the work of John Caputo that Beck turns to for some answer to this dilemma.
Andrew Prior 2013
Next.... Weakness and Humility