Why go after the omni’s?
In a great deal of the pop theology of the church, we live with this trinitarian phrase description of God as omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, or all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-present. This phrase as a phrase is a frustrating one for me as a pastor and coffeeshop theologian. It is TBV: true but vapid.
It is frustrating as a pastor because it is unbiblical and completely devoid of creativity and relationship. It says true things in a way that brings in a constellation of meaning that is untrue, or at least unrelated to the God of the Bible and Jesus. It brings us a whole lot closer to the question, “Can God make a rock so big he can’t move it?” than to Jesus’ statement to Philip, “If you have seen me, you have seen the Father.”
As a coffeeshop theologian it is frustrating because it is sort of true. God is powerful and knowing and present in a complete way, but that statement of absolute power, knowledge, and presence is presented out of a distant god as force way of thinking. I have often been tempted and even subscribed to this way of thinking. It is not necessarily pantheism or panentheism as a classically defined. I could draw some lines around it, but it was very much a god as Force, as in May the Force be with You. Over time, I have been converted by the Bible to a more personal view of God, not as in my-god kind of personal, but in a view of God as person who is involved in the narrative of creation and life, a God on the hillside and mountainside bargaining with Abraham and arguing with Moses and on the cross. A God of love rather than a force of love.
It has become a justice issue for me. I am using that term on purpose because everything is a justice issue these days. Justice for women and gays and blacks has us scrambling to figure out language and relationships both real and imagined. It has us waving banners and posting online, but I don’t think much is at stake for most of us right now if we are honest. The civil rights movement in the 1960’s was violent because the stakes were life and death, poverty and wealth. Right now the stakes where I live are comfort and conscience, wealth and its distribution. These things are important, but they are not causing the pillars to shake, are they?
No, I think this language about God puts our meaning of justice at stake, and this issue then risks some more nuanced and possibly dangerous earthquakes. If God is a force of love, then everything is equal and should be equally applied, which gives you and me an awful lot of freedom to decide what is important right now. We look at the field and choose. Our vision is not pure, however, because we are really shaped by the local culture and media. This is not evil, but it is not necessarily Christian either, even when the culture claims to be Christian.
If our starting point for understanding God is personal, our Lord God*, who created the world, loves the creation, and made us to be emissaries and caretakers, image-bearers or name-bearers, then our sense of justice is very much at stake because we have to take into account what that personal God cares about and names. We have to look at what we can know about God, what has been revealed, and how we submit to the cares and loves of God. I think that puts us in a pretty terrible position culturally. Love as a force is pretty great. Love as submission to a loving God is pretty demanding.
So let’s set some stakes that are biblical. God created the world and loves it, placed humanity in the world to bear God’s image, and even when humanity went awry came to us time and time again to reveal God’s ways and intentions. Ultimately, God came to form a covenant with the Israelites that they would bear his image and name in a particular way in how they lived with God, each other, and the land, especially the land of Canaan. They failed often, but God continued to be faithful to them and to the promise that one day there would arise one who would restore the place of the Israelites as the savior people, the image bearing people set free and a place of knowing God for all the nations.
This promise was kept in Jesus of Nazareth, we believe as Christians, who bore the image of God without sin and chose to face the powers of death that constantly bound both the people through sin but also through the institutional sins of rule and religion. In Jesus, God was revealed, we believe, as incarnate and loving, forgiving and merciful, just and holy. The order is important.
God loves the creation and human beings. God is protective of the least, as is often repeated in the Scriptures, the poor, the widow, and the orphan. I would add barren women and wanderers, the dispossessed and the oppressed. This is not a surprise in Jesus, somehow over-against his Hebrew faith. It is the natural shape of the landscape of the Torah described by the prophets. Jesus “gives meat” to the God revealed in the Law and prophets, writings and histories of the Hebrew people. The God who created human beings cares for them, especially when they are vulnerable, oppressed, and crushed. The God whose love often turns from wrath to mercy. The God who relents from destruction time and time again. Not always, but often.
God’s wrath has to be understood in the context of God’s love. It is not, as the Reformed tradition has sometimes claimed, that God is holy and therefore offended. That frankly doesn’t hold very well with the Bible. God is holy, but that holiness is loving. God loves and is therefore just. God’s love is a creator’s love and therefore whole and holy. We are incapable of directly apprehending God because we are limited. We are called to be God’s stewards in the house of creation, despite our limitations and lack of apprehension. We are to care for people and things, order people and things, and to do so in God’s name as an act of worship and love of God.
Okay, so let us return to our original formula through justice. Justice in God’s house has to be based on who God is, what God is like, what God cares about, and who God wants us to be.
God as creator of the world gives us some pretty immediate theology. God is outside the creation, as must be true to create it. God is not a part of the creation and so is not bound by it or its limitations.
Is God therefore all-powerful? We have to say “yes,” and Jesus says, “Nothing is impossible with God.” But God works in and through the creation and humanity. Does God ever “break the rules”? There are certainly miracles, but they always involve humanity and creation. I would point rather to God as Creator than God as All-Powerful because the claims of the Bible are typically creative claims. I would say with Paul in Romans 4:17 “As it is written, ‘I have made you the father of many nations’—in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.” ESV God is Almighty because God is creator and holds all life and being itself in love.
Is God all-knowing? There are lots of Scriptures that indicate that God knows the future, though usually “plans”, and that God knows human beings and even in some places “all things.” I would not argue that God does not know all things, but rather that there are many indications in the Scriptures that God interacts with creation in a way that indicates real dialogue and open-ended possibility. He asks Adam and Eve where they are and what happened. He calls Moses and bargains with him. Does God’s plan change for Aaron when Moses says he cannot speak? I would say, yes, out of deference for the way of God in the Bible. Jesus even asks God to let the cup of crucifixion pass from him. If he, God-incarnate, did not believe that it could be otherwise, why pray it? So while I would say God is all-knowing, it is pulled back in relationship with humanity. This points to that great rabbinic idea of zim-zum where God pulls back to make creation, allowing creation the space to exist and humanity the room to have freedom within his will. So maybe I would say God knows all the possibilities and is able to see where all outcomes lead, even be able to weave all outcomes to one, the bringing to completion the will of God in the day of completion, resurrection, judgement, and justice and peace.
Is God all-present? Maybe. There are many examples in the scriptures where God’s presence, especially mediated by the angels, is less or more. I might argue that within the Biblical world God’s presence is always somewhat mediated, first by angels, then Jesus, and ultimately the Holy Spirit. The place that Holy Wisdom has in that or the shekinah, we could debate, but the presence of God if it is always there directly is certainly mediated to humanity and through creation and humanity.
So while you can say God is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent, that is a pretty thin statement in a Biblical faith. It isn’t that it isn’t true, so much as that it is vapid. It does not offer the creativity and relationality of God-in-Jesus revealed in the Bible.
So let me turn finally to justice.
The Rule of God: we are to be a people who live in the world as God’s emissaries and stewards. But if we are to do that our very desires and the shape of our thinking have to be subject to God. If we are to be just, it must be God’s justice. As we return to women and gays and blacks, to put it bluntly even grossly, or more broadly to humanity and issues of our day, we cannot be for injustice, and we cannot not love any human being. We have to love even our enemies and bless those who curse us. Sounds self-sacrificial, doesn’t it? But this is God’s will, that we should love people and care for the creation.
But we also have to subject ourselves as followers of Jesus to allow God’s will be my will, God’s justice be my justice, God’s love be my love. It is a lot easier to say God is love, so when I love I am being like God. The truth is there, but the order is wrong. I must seek God’s love to be my love, so that I don’t distort it.
I must care for the creation and love human beings, all of them. I cannot make them subject to God; I can only love them and proclaim what I know. I can order my life to reflect God’s will, justice, and love. This means trying to live the grace that God has for me. I don’t deserve God’s love, and other people don’t have to deserve mine. I will be merciful and just no matter what.
This may be the heart of the new reformation we are in. As in the former reformations we argued over the definitions of grace as a commodity given, an object, in our current age we are coming to understand that grace is not a commodity but the nature of God, and the arguments are over the demands that “giving meat” to that grace places on us. I am to be grace, but that gets complicated quickly.
If grace is love then I have to love humanity, but what do I do when humanity is unloving? What do I do with someone who refuses to be transformed by God’s grace? Do I stop loving them? Do I try to destroy them? Do I continue to do my work and ignore their sins? I think the answers are in the sermon on the mount and the parables and teachings of Jesus, but I don’t like them very much, because my fleshly self wants this to be about me and me being right and safe.
I would like it if God were just a force like gravity so that I could tip my wings and fly, bending and using God like the forces of nature, but God is beyond all that, alive and personal. I am not called to fly but to walk with God, to know God and be transformed by God, to be like God towards other people and God’s creation.
As an aside, I fail at this all the time, every day, right now. My failure doesn’t start in my actions, but rather in my heart and mind. I want to order and shape things for myself, like some Ayn Rand disciple rather than Jesus’ disciple. That ignores my true nature; it even destroys it over time. I have to be converted in the heart while I am learning to do as God would have me do. I fail at this in my marriage and my family, in my church and in my world. I am getting better, but thank God I am following Jesus and have the Holy Spirit dwelling in my very being, working to change me and redeem me, to set me free from the accumulation of all those other decisions and selfish habits. I am being redeemed. I have been forgiven. I will probably need more of both tomorrow.
So, as a pastor and a coffeeshop theologian, as a human being, I want more God than the all-that one.
*The objections for Lord are well known and acknowledged. While I do not claim that God is gendered and acknowledge that the word Lord is, I don’t have a gender-neutral word in English for one whom we submit to that is understood in the same way. I am trying in my limited way to get to a more open language of God that is still faithful to the revelation of the Word and the Scriptures.