God, Omnipotence, and the meaning of Power


Chris Baker has written in his blog a review of the book Play the Ball Where the Monkey Drops It: Why We Suffer and How We Can Hope, by Gregory Knox Jones. The book, which I was unfamiliar with, addresses the problem of theodicy from a point of view not dissimilar from that of process theology. In introducing what Jones has to say on the subject, Chris writes,

It can rightly be asked how a limited God, a God who allows suffering to happen not for some mysterious reason that humans can never discern, nor for our own good or for any of the other reasons offered up in our formal and informal theodicies, but because God cannot do all things; it can rightly be asked how such a God who lacks the power to initially prevent suffering, to forcibly restrain the forces that cause suffering, can effectively respond to suffering.

It has been suggested to me (by a former minister turned atheist) that we must choose between an omnipotent God who refuses to prevent suffering and an impotent God who is powerless to act in the face of suffering. This, I suggest, is a false dichotomy, and the sort of false dichotomy at work in the minds of many Christians who feel threatened by the statement that there are some things that God can’t do.
This is a very important point. To me, this false dichotomy comes from an all-or-nothing outlook on religious faith. Many people want God to be a divine magician, an all-powerful ruler in the sky who just can wish away problems by sheer dint of Divine will. They want simple, clear, and easy solutions, which an omnipotent God can offer. Without omnipotence, they take the other extreme and conclude that faith in God is worthless. They ask themselves, "What's the point of such a God?"

But a God who is not omnipotence is not really "powerless". It is just a different kind of power that we are talking about. Chris summarizes Jones's arguments in this way:
Jones asserts that not only is God’s power limited, but that power which God does have is quite unlike we often suppose it to be. Jones is wont to wax poetic on the power of God, saying in one of my favorite lines in the whole book, “God is the most powerful force in the universe, bringing order out of chaos and making life possible.” But this power is not the brute power to override other wills and impose particular outcomes on situations. Rather, it is what he calls “the power of persuasion."

Jones sees God at work in the world trying to influence situations and bring about the best outcomes, not trying to override the respective wills of each actor. This view of God’s power is quite compelling, in part because it makes sense of things that many of use experience. Many of us have felt the presence of God in our lives. Many of us have “heard” without hearing the “still small voice” of God. Many of us have felt an inexplicable sense of calling, a calling that often takes us far from where we thought we would go in life. In these Jones sees the power of God working to bring about the best in the created order.
It can be tough for many people to move away from a spirituality of the God who will magically wish our problems away, to accepting the God who acts as the still small voice in our lives, a deep and abiding presence who calls out to us and who lures us forward at each moment. There are no magic solutions in such a spirituality. But for me, anyway, it makes for a richer and more evocative spiritual framework.


David Stoker said...

I just came across your blog, having myself only recently entered into this world of blogging. I have enjoyed reading your last couple posts and will have to go through your old posts when I get a extra chunk of time. I think we see many issues similarly and are interested in the same questions.

I've noticed that you have had a couple recent posts that touch on what is called in philosophy the "Problem of Evil" or the question of suffering. The most insightful lecture/reading I have come across was in a lecture series entitled Timeless Questions: Gospel Insights and the specific lecture- Human Anguish and Divine Love. The speaker is Truman Madsen, a philosopher and writer. He is speaking to an LDS audience, himself being Mormon as well, but he provides a sweeping overview of how various religions and philosophies have dealt with the issue then he details the Mormon understanding which should be of interest even to those who don't subscribe to all the tenets of Mormonism.

It can be hard if not impossible to track down in digital format but if you're interested drop me a line and I could share it with you. And don't worry--I don't have any strange objective or reap any personal benefit from suggesting the lecture-I simply like passing on good finds, myself always looking for good reads as well.

I look forward to following your blog.

Mystical Seeker said...


Thanks for visiting my blog. I have not heard of Truman Madsen before. Thanks for the reference.