Coercion versus Persuasion


Interest in process theology spans across many denominations. For example, I found an article titled "Process Theology and Me" in an Adventist magazine. The author, David Larson, provides ten reasons why process theology interests him. Many of them are quite good, but in particular he then goes on in the article to focus on reason 8: "It claims that persuading others requires more true power than coercing them."

This relates to the quote from Majorie Suchocki that I cited in my previous posting, where she writes, "To be able to elicit the willing cooperation of another is a far greater power than simply to force the other to do as one wishes."

David Larson goes on to write,

I believe it does take much more true power to convince individuals who possess genuine freedom to do something than to force them to comply. Some people say that the God of process thought is “weak.” I disagree. But this debate is less about how much power God has and more about what kind of power we value most.

Whitehead wrote about “the deeper idolatry.” This occurs when we make God seem more like one of the tyrannical and capricious Caesars of ancient Rome than Jesus of Nazareth.

This analogy with ancient tyrannies is quite pertinent, I believe. I can't help but wonder if this model of Divine power through coercion that embodies the traditional concept of omnipotence comes from a direct analogy with the tyrannical, authoritarian regimes that were the prevailing political model of the ancient world. When the only model in human experience that you have for power is that of the king, emperor, or other ruler who acts by dint of coercion, then it is natural to think that the greatest force in the universe would act analogously.

I think it is easy to become theologically addicted to the notion of Divine omnipotence, to want to believe in a God who acts by exercising raw, coercive force. Yet persuasion strikes me as a higher, more sublime form of power than raw force. Maybe this need for coercive power comes from a desire for quick, magic solutions to seemingly intractable problems. Wouldn't be nice if problems could just be wished away?

The current issue of Creative Transformation contains an article by Bruce Epperly titled "Praying for a Miracle? A Father Faces His Son's Cancer". The author writes of the prayers that he and his family expressed in the face of his son's health crisis. He notes:
While in the week following Matt's hospitalization and diagnosis, I longed for a supernatural intervention to deliver my son from cancer, I knew deep down that hope for a supernatural interruption of the steady laws of nature, even those that governed the growth of cancer cells and the response to medical treatment, was not an option for me either spiritually or theologically. I knew that God would not single out my beloved child for a supernatural intervention, while neglecting the beloved children of Darfur parents, the parents of other children diagnosed with cancer, other persons at Georgetown University Hospital being treated for cancer, and adult children whose parents have been diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. I also knew that if God could supernaturally save my son from the immanent threat of cancer, God must also, in some way, have been the source of the germ cell cancer we were now trying to eradicate.
This insightful statement summarizes why I don't believe that God "intercedes" on behalf of those who say intercessory prayers. That isn't to say that prayers are not useful. Epperly himself believes in the value of prayer, writing:
In this long journey to daylight, we will continue to pray for a "miracle," but the miracle we seek comes from opening to God's energy of love in the midst of the valley of cancer and chemotherapy. The miracle of God's healing touch does not deliver us from the path ahead; but gives us the energy, inspiration, courage, and wisdom to be God's healing partners as we walk through the valley.

Some might suggest that my inability to expect, or even pray for, a supernatural intervention on our son's behalf is a reflection of my own lack of faith. But, I believe that prayer and trust without guarantees is, in contrast, a profound testimony to faith in a God who does not play favorites or undermine cosmic regularity in order to answer our prayers, but who seeks the well-being of all creation, including our son, and the children of countless other loving and worried parents. A God who cannot supernaturally intervene to cure cancer can still bring healing, comfort, and companionship in and through chemotherapy, prayers, touch, tears, love, and hugs. Perhaps that is miracle enough! The miracle of God's healing presence, nurturing us and luring us toward wholeness, regardless of what the future will bring for our child and our family.
I believe that once we shed the hope for supernatural intervention, once we have released ourselves from the bondage of attachment to the power of a hoped-for rescuing coercive force, we can then face life's troubles with a profound sense of appreciation for the power of God's nurturing love.


Gary said...

Well said, MS. Every day that passes leaves me more in doubt to the doctrine of omnipotence. It has been difficult to leave such a concept behind, but I am not sad to see it go. The process of appreciating God's love, now that is another challenge. I doubt that I did this seriously in my previous view of God.

Mystical Seeker said...

Thanks, Gary.

I think it is harder to appreciate God's love if you believe in omnipotence, because then you have to reconcile God's ostensible love with the fact that God doesn't rescue people from senseless acts of evil. But if you see God's love as an outpouring of compassion and a constant call for us to do better, we can see God as being with us all the way and acting through us as we love others.

The point I was trying to make about "letting go" of our attachment to omnipotence is that I think it allows us to face the world with an acceptance that we can't control everything or that everything can't be controlled. I think that this is a step forward and allows us to approach the bd things that happen to us with better fortitude as well.

Johnny Workentine said...

The Adventists are quite effective in persuading people. Tactic: make people feel good about eating bad food. Result: it tastes good, but the people like to think its healthy.

Matthew said...

Wow, the Epperly piece is impressive stuff.