Celestial Lands The Religious Crossroads of Politics, Power, and Theology

The Consequences of Omniscience and Omnipotence

When I was at the U.S. Army Chaplain’s School at Ft. Jackson, South Carolina, there was a day in class that we were responding to hypothetical counseling situations. One of the scenarios presented to us was that of a young woman who came to us for counseling after having been raped. She did not know how a loving God could allow such a thing to happen. She had done things in her life that might be considered “sin”, and she was worried God had allowed this to happen because of her sin.

I sat in horror as my some of my more conservative Christian colleagues role-played how they would respond to this young woman. One began asking her to detail her “sins” and ask the Lord for forgiveness. Another began questioning her on how she was dressed, and why she was out so late. Another went the direction of telling her that, no matter how horrible the rape was, it was all part of God’s plan and that she had to put her trust in the Lord.

After five or six of my colleagues had responded to the instructor along this theme, I found myself standing up without being called on, and answering the question completely out of turn.

“The God that I know would never, never, never punish any conceivable sin with rape.”

There are reasons that I am no longer a Southern Baptist, and they are not social or political reasons. They are theological. While I will defend to the death their right to be wrong, I came to the belief that the theological premises of conservative and fundamentalist Christianity are not only damaging, but wrong. These theological errors lead people away from the compassion that I believe was at the heart of the message of that poor carpenter from a little village in Galilee.

And, for people who do hold these theological doctrines to be true, the positions they take that are anathema to the compassion I am called to are not negotiable… they come directly from this absolute theological commitment to the Omniscience and Omnipotence of God.

If you hold an absolute belief in the Omniscience and Omnipotence of God, then you cede all human volition. We might have the illusion of free will, but it is just that… an illusion. All we think and do has been planned from the beginning of time. In the short term, it can indeed be comforting to many people to believe that everything that happens is part of God’s plan. As a Hospital Chaplain, I would see people reach for this comfort time and again. In the long run, however, this is one of the most disempowering theological ideas of all time. It takes away from human beings not only their own agency, their own ability to control their lives, but it also gives them an excuse for the behavior of themselves or others. “It will all work out in the end, it is God’s plan”. “I can’t believe they did this to me, but it must be part of God’s Plan”. “I don’t know what it means, but God must have a plan for me.”

If we hold that theology, then we lose the ability to truly question and challenge the things that happen to us. We lose the power to cry for justice, even to the Lord. If you are poor, it is God’s plan. If you are rich, it is God’s plan. If you have cancer, it is God’s plan. If your spouse wants a divorce, it is God’s plan. If you run for Senate, it is God’s Plan. The script was set at the beginning of time, and we are merely players in God’s grand performance. Our sins and our righteousness are pre-determined. We can’t know the plan… but whatever happens, it was God’s intent. Who are you to cry out against God’s Plan?

If you believe this theological doctrine of the Omniscience and Omnipotence of God, then you have to believe that when someone is raped, it was part of God’s Plan, because everything is part of God’s Plan. Satan is part of God’s Plan. Evil is part of God’s Plan. All has been written at the beginning of time. God is never thwarted… how could he be? He is all powerful and all knowing. So when evil happens, it is part of God’s Plan.

That is why it makes sense, if you truly believe in the Omniscience and Omnipotence of God, for a politician to describe rape as “just another method of conception.” This is why some people believe there should be absolutely no instances in which abortion should be legal, because if someone is raped, God foresaw and intended that to occur. If the pregnancy will cost the mother her life, then the mother’s death is part of God’s plan. If the sin of incest occurred, that is also part of God’s Plan. The fetus is a part of God’s Plan. Even this debate over these issues is part of God’s Plan. And God will always win in the end… so whatever happens or whatever we do, no matter how horrible of uncompassionate it seems, is justified by God’s eventual victory.

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I think the first step away from conservative Christianity for me was realizing that I no longer could accept the Omniscience and Omnipotence of God. I think that most conservative Christians have not taken the absolute belief in these theologies to their logical conclusions… but many have taken them far enough to justify their own ends, consciously or unconsciously. I am reminded of the Catholic Priest who told me of the day he realized that the God he believed in seemed to hate all the same people he did…

I do still believe in God’s Omnipresence… that God is in every space, in every moment, all the time. But God is not a being that is controlling or perceiving of all that has occurred… God simply is all that is occurring, in the moment. Each moment, as it unfolds across all of time and space is God developing…

So, some of the statements that have sparked a firestorm during this election campaign about rape and abortion come from a deeply rooted and committed theology in the Omniscience and Omnipotence of God. We should not be surprised when believers in this theology attempt to legislate it… we should simply not give them the opportunity to do so.

Yours in faith,

Rev. David

4 Thoughts on “The Consequences of Omniscience and Omnipotence

  1. Marsha McDonald on Friday October 26, 2012 at 15:40 +0000 said:

    Thank you, David!

  2. Your explanation is the first logical and compassionate view on the subject that I have seen. Thank you!

  3. Wow. UUs are non-creedal for sure. Several different responses to this one:

    I. I’ve often said Christians would have an easier go of theology if they said god was just ‘mostly’ powerful rather than all powerful.

    II. And of course, the below is the original, elegant, and unrefuted statement of the Problem of Evil:
    “Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able?
    Then he is not omnipotent.
    Is he able, but not willing?
    Then he is malevolent.
    Is he both able and willing.
    Then —Whence Cometh Evil?—
    Is he neither able nor willing?
    Then why call him God?”
    — Epicurus

    III. “Why call him God” is really the question. Because even if god is mostly powerful rather than all powerful, the world is not what it could be. Many people make the world a better place, but in what way does “God” redeem himself? If he gets a pass for all the bad things in the world by virtue of being not powerful enough to stop it, what are his redeeming qualities?

    IV. I think the Christian and more specifically the answer of Islam, which means submission, is to submit to the will of god. Bad things are bad, but it is a plan, so it can’t be that bad (or alternatively, it must be the best possible outcome). That’s a common theological response.

    V. Sad news friend. Strong scientific evidence indicates that we in fact have no free will. Free will is an illusion arising from consciousness. True determinism, that we could predict the future given perfect understanding of current variables is muddled by quantum uncertainty (or ‘many worlds’ which posits that all things always happen), but those fluctuations still don’t afford us “free will” in a literal sense. We don’t have to worry that a cosmic being is out to get us or that we’re subject to some predefined plan, but in a very real sense, we are acting according to the laws of physics rather than a “free will” choice.

    VI. I definitely agree with your justice comment. I often ask Christians about hell. They general say it exists. Then I ask if they think it is just. I really want to ask if they think that it’s ok to torture someone forever for not showing proper respect. Suffering and death on mass scales on Earth are nothing compared to the problem that finite failures never justify infinite punishment. No amount of Earthly misdeeds would warrant being tossed into hell. And failing to convert / show fealty doesn’t warrant any punishment at all to a God that isn’t terribly insecure.

  4. David:

    I’m sorry you had to be witness to a bunch of (probable) chaplain candidate lieutenants acting naive, ignorant and foolish (I’ve been there at one time), but I figure they were witness to you being an equally naive and unknowing UU candidate as well. They’re coming from one place, likely without much experience. It sounds like you were similar to them, only from the opposite direction.
    From what you describe, you’re essentially caricaturing various evangelical positions, and using them as straw men to reflect on your personal theology. If UU positions are yours, that’s fine, but it would be nice if you could more accurately define evangelical positions (perhaps using the actual source materials) before using them as caricatures. I think we both know that the Bible paints a slightly different picture than standard evangelical belief teaches.
    If you’re falling into the standard error/trap of declaring that belief in God’s omnipotence cedes free will, welcome to it. Progressive theology has been teaching this for almost 150 years…and was answered long before the position was even established. Last I checked, orthodox Christian teaching is that we have free will, since we are image bearers of the inifinite-personal Lord God, who Himself demonstrates true freedom. Our free will reflects our bearing His image in our creation. Sorry if you view that as an illusion, but I will defend happily your right to your religious opinion. It simply doesn’t describe the rest of us, that’s all.
    If you hold to God having only one plan (as many evangelicals do), then you may have some salient points. Please recall, however, evangelicalism is not a theological monolith: there are many strains, most of which are different than historical Christianity. Does God have a plan for us? Likely, many plans, some of which are different than others. One size probably doesn’t fit all. But thanks for painting with one solitary color!
    If God made the world “very good”, yet with uncontrolled (by us) chaos within it (as Genesis proclaims), then this accounts for “bad things” happening (our view). Orthodox Christian teaching includes God’s decretal will, among others. Does God ordain evil? No, but He sure uses it. Your (and my) confusion over these matters does not negate their reality, merely signifies our ignorance.
    In short, much of this post doesn’t make sense, since your definition of God seems to shift throughout. At the end, you write:
    “But God is not a being that is controlling or perceiving of all that has occurred… God simply is all that is occurring, in the moment. Each moment, as it unfolds across all of time and space is God developing.”
    So I guess your position (and possibly the UU position as well?) is that God is not a personal being, an infinite-personal God who exists apart from the universe. God is more a force, an impersonal something out there, whom we endure. If this is accurate, then you’re correct: the consequences of the omnipotence and omniscience of an impersonal, unknowable, not-in-control and not-acting-in-reality at all “force” are truly tragic. I agree. This does not represent the infinite-personal God of the Bible, much less other monotheistic traditions. Now, if you’d actually accurately described the differences between the Christian God and yours, that would make for an interesting discussion. You didn’t, sadly. Thus, this became an interesting exercise in straw man attacks, ad hominem, and logical fallacies. But it was an useful read, David, amidst political craziness.
    Thanks for a fun few minutes.

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