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Tuesday, February 14, 2017

On God and Love and Dependence

Disclaimer: I wrote this paper almost two years ago.  There are a few points on which I would argue with myself, now, because I have shifted a little further toward open theism than I was when I wrote this.  I considered making significant edits, but then I thought to myself, “Maybe I should let this one stand as it is and write another piece interacting with it, in the near future.”  So that’s what I’m doing…

So…  On God and Love and Dependence 


Our theology shapes and informs our actions.  "Theology can perpetuate the illness or it can capacitate the cure" (Keller, 2003, 7).  One of the most predominant views of God, in the western worldview of religion as a whole, is that of the omni-God, a God whose very nature is that of omniscience, omnipresence, and omnipotence.  Belief in a God like this, if there is nothing else, leaves room for many disturbing questions ranging from the problem of evil, to pain, to prayers that seem to be left unanswered.  The voluble but shallow response to such questions seems to be that the God we have is a God who knows what is best and works in the world for our good and for the good of others, even when we cannot see it.  The answer to the gut wrenching question, "why," is almost always that we must just have faith, or adequate faith, or more faith.  This is lacking in the face of suffering, particularly when faithful people continue to experience devastation.  Perhaps the omni-attributes that we have ascribed to God come from our own human struggle for power and do not begin to touch on the heart of who God is.  If this is the case, God must be someone different than we originally expected.  This is not such a stretch, since throughout history this theory holds as true, but it is difficult to deconstruct our own assumptions, starting over with very little understanding of who God is.  If, as Kearney suggests, "We will find the solution to the wrong interpretation of religion through the right interpretation" (Kearney, Lecture Week 7), then, "Discernment is crucial, some things we can embrace but other things we must eschew" (Pinnock, 2001, 116).  Is it possible that God's love has limited God in such a way that God has chosen to sometimes be dependent on people?  This paper will explore the dependency of God, particularly in regard to God's nature of love and God's choice to empower us with free will. 

God is love.  But, what is love?  There are not enough words in the English language to define such a term.  In Greek, we can talk of eros, philia, agape, storge.  Which is God?  The clear cut, Sunday School answer is always, "agape".  God is unconditional love.  God is a love of well wishing and benevolence and even a love that remains constant when unrequited.  Yes, God is agape.  But perhaps we do not give God enough credit for being love in all its various forms.

Open theism allows God to also be philia, entering into friendship with human beings, with creation.  "As individuals we are significant in God's eyes... the things we do and say, the decisions and choices we make, and our prayers all help shape the future.  Open theology affirms that life and our life-decisions really do matter" (Oord, 2010, 91).  There are examples in Scripture that seem to confirm this as truth.  In Exodus, God declares that God will destroy the Israelites when they craft the golden calf, but Moses begs God for mercy, and God relents.  In II Kings, God sends Isaiah to tell Hezekiah that he should get his house in order, because he is going to die, definitively and soon, but when Hezekiah cries out in prayer, weeping bitterly, God heals him and extends his life for fifteen more years.  Perhaps the most disquieting moment, though, in light of an omnipotent God comes when, "The Lord regretted that he had made human beings on the earth, and his heart was deeply troubled" (Genesis 6:6, NIV, 2011).  At this point, God was prepared to destroy all of humanity, but even then there was one, Noah, who found favor, and God began again, through him.  Clearly, God can change God's mind, and I am left to ponder whether this occurs with greater frequency than we might imagine.

Two important questions surface from these biblical accounts.  First, how can an all-knowing God change his mind?  And second, how important is human participation in the future that is to be?  Open theology affirms that God knows every possibility but cannot know which future will come to pass.  This makes sense in some regard and may even explain how God could come to regret a decision, knowing that a regrettable possibility existed but, perhaps, hoping for something better.  Put very powerfully, "A cloud of missed possibilities envelops every beginning: it is always this beginning, this universe, and not some other.  Decision lacks innocence.  Around its narrations gather histories of grievance: what possibilities were excluded?" (Keller, 2003, 160).  It is overwhelming to consider that God risks so much when God allows us to have free choice.  Traditionally, God's act of imbuing this power of choice is considered a necessary part of fulfilling God's nature of love.  While I am in agreement with this premise, it also seems as if the act of allowing for free will is one of humility on God's part.  Described in one work, the virtue of humility is equated with permission, "the great one should consult with, request permission from, the small one" (Keller, 2003, 174).  Additionally, "God makes himself dependent on the prayers of his people... God loves to move in response to our prayers.  Our failure to pray impacts the world negatively" (Pinnock, 2001, 135).  Clearly, this is the case in the aforementioned passages of Scripture.  People pray.  God responds.  Jesus teaches us to pray, so prayer is an expected part of Christian spiritual formation, and it only makes sense that this is so if prayer actually matters.  "Why pray if prayer changes nothing?" (Pinnock, 2001, 137).  Taking it a step further, though, I have often wondered, why do anything if nothing can be changed, if the future is already set?

Do our human actions, reactions, and interactions actually make a difference in the world and the coming kingdom?  Are we just casual friends of God, or is there something much deeper?  Controversial theologians sometimes allow for eros, at least in regard to creation.  Does this God of love actually work in intimate partnership with us, not merely engaging in a dance of responses, but actually creating in tandem?  What do we really mean when we speak of an omnipresent God?  Perhaps this term moves beyond a God who is looking on, somewhere above time and space, and instead describes a pervasive God, one who, "cannot be absent from any molecule, membrane or mucus of the creation" (Keller, 2003, 23).  Even "John Wesley preached that 'God is in all things,' indeed 'pervades and actuates the whole created frame, and is in a true sense the Soul of the Universe" (Keller, 2003, 23).  And yet it is not a possessive kind of love.  "Nothing is further from Eros than possession" (Kearney, 2001, 66).  This is the God who depends on us for the incarnation and the God who allows us to enter into covenant.  "God does not choose to be alone.  He wills the creature to co-exist with him and to stand alongside him as the beloved covenant partner.  This is our core identity - to be loved by God" (Pinnock, 2001, 125).  This is fascinating.  God's core identity is love, and ours is to be loved.  God "values freedom, not so much as an end in itself, but as an instrument to make possible what he really longs for, love" (Pinnock, 2001, 126).

Could it be that if we refuse to cooperate with God the timing of things may be different than originally planned, but eventually someone will partner with God in such a way that God's promises will be fulfilled?  Or perhaps it is as simple as this: "There are some things that must happen and many things that may happen.  And there are many things that just happen... But, when they happen, (God's) sovereignty is such that he can take them into his overall purpose for the world" (Pinnock, 2001, 186).  It is possible that we may become distracted by our human expectations for the world, but God's purpose is clear.  God's purpose, God's very essence, is love, and God displays that love, in its purest form, through redemption.

Which leads us to yet another kind of love, and even open theism does not seem to allow it.  What can be said of storge.  If God is love, is God not all love?  This includes the protective love of a parent, the love that says, "no," and even sometimes the love that says "yes" to things that are impossible.  Storge is the love that puts up with humanity because we are family, and the love that may even create new things, perhaps from nothing at all.  Some argue that, "The ex nihilo doctrine constructed as orthodoxy itself the pure dualism of originating Logos and prevenient Nothing" (Keller, 2003, 10).  Except, even when there is nothing, there is still God, the God of impossibilities, the God of miracles and resurrection.  There is surely still the God of prevenient grace.  I have struggled deeply with the question, "Is there never a situation in which God 'pulls rank' and acts on God's own?"  Perhaps the best answer to this question is that God is un-ranked, to begin with.  It is tempting to try to understand God on human terms, but life and faith are more than just a game with power players.

While it would be irresponsible to ignore the question of theology, making God synonymous with myth and chance and inconsistent with all measures of reason and logic, it seems acceptable to allow for some degree of mystery.  What if we delete the theos from theology?  Is it possible that we can fall too far on the side of the equation that insists that God work in cooperation with creation, at all times?  "Transcendence can... become too transcendent.  If removed entirely from historical being, God can become so unknowable and invisible as to escape all identification whatsoever" (Kearney, 2001, 31).  If this is the case, is there any need for God, at all?  "If we delete the theos from theology, what does it leave?  A logos alone, a regimen of secular monologoi, from which mystery, prophecy, and the love that is stronger than death have evaporated?  An elite post-theism, which shuns all theologies of social and symbolic struggle?" (Keller, 2003, 172).  

The struggle is real, but there is something we must not forget about God.  "God remains faithful to the creation project and has committed himself to redeem it" (Pinnock, 2001, 138).  God always keeps the covenant.  We see it in Abraham.  We see it in Jesus.  Even the greatest evil, death, cannot break the promises that God has made.  It has no sting, because God is the God of the miraculous, the God of love so great it encompasses resurrection.  Maybe God's omnipotence does not uniquely qualify God to act without us, but God offers a gift that no one else can.  "The promise is granted unconditionally, as pure gift.  But God is reminding his people that they are free to accept or refuse this gift.  A gift cannot be imposed; it can only be offered" (Kearney, 2001, 29).  God's gift is enormously compelling.  

"Through self-sacrifice, the intensity of God's love is expressed and provides for the reconciliation of the world.  God does not relish suffering but he does enjoy the restored relationships made possible by it" (Pinnock, 2001, 138).  God's love is raw and unnerving, impossible even.  It is the love of a servant who wants nothing but the very best for others, for us, even though this costs everything.  It is an unselfish love that is willing to move with us, in us, and even around us, if that is what is necessary for redemption to take place.

So, to answer the question, "Is God ever dependent," I would have to say yes, but to answer the question, "Is God always dependent," I would venture to say no.  I think these are questions that require discernment and grace.  Because of God's very nature of love, there are some things that God cannot do and still remain who God is.  Freedom is necessary in love, and freedom "entails risk in the event that love is not reciprocated" (Pinnock, 2001, 132).  But our freedom will never negate God's promise and plan for redemption for anyone who can and will be redeemed.  "God will overcome wickedness through his wisdom, power, and resourcefulness.  He allows the creature to wreak havoc on the world for a time but not forever.  The gift of freedom was not unlimited in scope or duration and therefore the power to do evil is finite" (Pinnock, 2001, 139).  God does not force humanity to do much, but there is one thing.  "The only thing God forces us to do is to become" (Luce Irigaray in Keller, 2003, 225).  The future is wide open for us to become everything we were intended to be as we seek to join God in God's redemptive work.

Works Cited 

Holy Bible. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011. Print.
Kearney, Richard.  Interview with David Cayley.  Recording.  Toronto, April 20, 2010.
Kearney, Richard. The God Who May Be: A Hermeneutics of Religion. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 2001. Print.
Keller, Catherine. Face of the Deep: A Theology of Becoming. London: Routledge, 2003. Print.
Oord, Thomas Jay. The Nature of Love: A Theology. St. Louis, MO: Chalice, 2010. Print.
Pinnock, Clark H. Most Moved Mover: A Theology of God's Openness. Carlisle, Cumbria, UK: Paternoster, 2001. Print.

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