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Theology and the idea of an impotent God


To: Edoardo S.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Theology and the idea of an impotent God
Date: 3 July 2007 12:36

Dear Edoardo,

Thank you for your email of 24 June, with your essay for the Associate Award, 'Theology of an impotent God and other reflections.'

This is an interesting and provocative piece which struggles with the concept of God's power and alleged 'omnipotence', without reaching a firm conclusion, although you do suggest a number of ways of re-thinking, from a philosophical standpoint the nature of God's 'power' which might tend to alleviate our sense of despair and disappointment that such an event as the Shoah could have been permitted to happen.

Isaac Luria's idea of the 'Tzimtzum' seems to answer one of the fundamental problems raised in theology - namely the question of the independence of the Creator from his creation. I think that to a large extent, your answer follows Luria's although you use different language to express it.

What is creation? What does it mean to say that God 'created' the universe? God could have imagined a universe in his own mind, and left it at that. The only difference between man and god, on this scenario, is that while man can only imagine a very small part of the whole (e.g. I imagine going for a walk in the park, or the expression on your face as you read this) God sees the whole thing. No question is left unanswered.

In Leibniz's famous picture, God sees all possible worlds - down to the finest detail - and then selects one as the 'best of all possible worlds'. But all this amounts to, arguably, is selecting your favourite imagined story, your favourite daydream. It is not enough to 'pick' the world you like imagining best, whether you are man or God. The work of creation requires something more.

If man and man's world is not merely the dream of God, then something extra must happen to give the world an independent existence apart from its creator. What can this be, but permitting a 'withdrawal' whereby the world goes its own way, while correspondingly God becomes less than 'all'?

This purchases the independent existence of the world, but at a price. God must, to some extent, relinquish control over what happens. He must permit things to occur which are 'evil'.

There is not a great distance between this solution to the problem of evil and the one proposed by theologians who argue that a greater good results from giving man 'free will'. Creation becomes fully independent of the creator only when creatures acquire the power to act according to their own view of good and evil. A universe where intelligent life never evolved might as well remain in God's mind. No further consequences follow from bringing such an image into reality.

Here is a point where, possibly, you are not completely clear. This relates to the 'three characteristics' you mention at the beginning of your essay, absolute goodness, absolute power and intelligibility. I would argue that there is one more attribute that needs to be considered, namely omniscience. God, being infinite, suffers no restriction to his powers of knowledge.

Omnibenevolence, omnipotence and omniscience are traditionally the three attributes of God that need to be balanced, while God's intelligibility or unintelligibility are two alternatives that the theologian has to choose between in resolving the problem of evil.

Your examples of the woman giving birth to a child, or the farmer sowing his field are less than fully convincing because an omniscient creator must know how things will turn out. To use an anthropomorphic image, God shakes his head in sorrow at the thought of all the man-made evils that must necessarily follow if he permits the world to attain an independent existence. The Shoah did not take God by surprise.

Of course, to talk about a God 'in time' who is or is not 'surprised' is itself fatally contaminated with anthropomorphism. It is not as if God watched the Nazis' rise to power, not realizing what the consequences would be. But then again it is equally absurd to imagine God watching history play itself out like an audience of a play that they have seen before.

I liked your remark about 'puppets endowed with a brain'. This is just another way of expressing the thought that as creatures we have free will, we are independent of our creator. The most important thing that follows from this is that we must, as you say, take 'total responsibility' for our actions.

I also liked it when you said, 'If man becomes aware with his 'divine nature' he could act for the best without the support of 'God the Father'. And only in so doing he will really exalt the greatness of the Creator and His creation.' What you are saying is that the primary role of 'God the creator' can only be as an ethical idea, motivating moral action. We are not helpless children, dependent on our 'responsible parent' to see that things turn out well. It is in this light, that we therefore need to re-think what is involved in the activity of prayer and supplication.

All the best,