August 10, 2020

Richard Beck on God’s Power

Richard Beck on God’s Power
From God’s Omnipotence: Part 6, Beyond a Marvel Imagination of Power

…[W]hen we speak of God being “all powerful” we should not think of God being the Biggest Power within the universe. God isn’t a superpower.

If I could wade into some nerdy waters, an illustration from the Marvel comic book universe might be helpful here.

There’s a hierarchy of powers in the Marvel universe. Some superheros have significant but local powers. Like Spider-Man. Spider-Man is powerful, but he can’t, for example, destroy a planet or manipulate space and time. Spider-Man’s power isn’t cosmic, it’s a local power (which is why he’s your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man). But above Spider-Man in the Marvel universe there are powers that are cosmic in scope. There are agents that have the power to manipulate the fabric of reality itself. Think of Thanos with all the Infinity Stones: a snap of his fingers and reality itself can be changed. And in the Marvel universe there are agents even stronger than Thanos with the Infinity Gauntlet: The Living Tribunal, the Beyonder, and the greatest power of all in the Marvel canon, the One-Above-All.

What we see displayed in the Marvel universe is the human imagination trying to imagine greater and greater powers until we reach an ultimate power, an all-powerful being, an omnipotent being. And yet, according to Thomas Aquinas, this vision of an all-powerful being is only like God analogically. At the end of the day, God is nothing like Thanos with the Infinity Stones or the One-Above-All.

To revisit the question from the end of the last post, perhaps our problems with God’s power stems from the fact that our imaginations about power and what being “all-powerful” would look like are too much like what we see in Marvel comics. [emphasis mine] We pray to God as if God is like Thanos with the Infinity Stones, asking God to snap his fingers to grant our requests. And that imagination–where we push the analogy of human power too far in talking about God–creates all the puzzles we have with God’s power. Why, we ask, does God-as-Thanos snap or not snap His fingers for us?

I expect most of us would recoil at the suggestion that prayer is fundamentally like asking Thanos to snap his fingers. And yet, isn’t this exactly the imagination at work behind every single problem we have with God’s power? From petitionary prayer to miracles to theodicy to every question we have about God’s influence and activity in our lives?

But what if God’s power is nothing like Thanos snapping his fingers?

In fact, following Aquinas, we do know that God is nothing like Thanos snapping his fingers. So we should reject any issue or question about God’s power–from prayer, to miracles to theodicy–that rests upon that imagination and assumption.

But if that’s the case, if the Thanos analogy is breaking down for us, keeping us snarled in theological debates, what sort of analogy might help us better think about God’s power? That’s what Sonderegger is hunting for, an analogy for God’s power that allows us to worship and praise God for being “all powerful,” but one that avoids the Marvel imagination of power.

Comments

  1. Iain Lovejoy says

    I would say God’s “power” is a meaningless statement – God does not have “power” at all in any conventional sense. If this universe were a comic book, God would be the author, not any of the characters in it.

  2. anonymous says

    that He Is Risen From The Dead

    and returns to us saying
    ‘PEACE BE WITH YOU’

    If this is not enough for us, what is?

    • Earlier in the week a woman who is a member of our church congregation and our choir — which my wife directs –, and who along with her daughter — who is around ten years old — also takes voice lessons from my wife, emailed to cancel their online Zoom lessons for that day. Her mother-in-law had tested positive for COVID-19, her condition was quickly worsening, and she was refusing treatment. The whole family was of course very upset, but especially the child, the granddaughter of the stricken woman.

      Today during our online Zoom worship, our pastor announced that four people who were either family or friends of members of our church community had succumbed to COVID-19. This woman, this mother and grandmother to my wife’s students, was one of them. May she, and the others, rest in peace.

      The kind of power that Christ, that God has is the power of life and love, the power that promises that these families and friends will be reunited with each other in life and love, and that all their tears shall be wiped away. He will return them to that life and love, saying, ‘PEACE BE WITH YOU’….

  3. I worship a God whose power created the universe and whose power could obliterate it all, but who put that power in His pocket when He cloaked himself in our skin, who put that power in His pocket as he was being railroaded to the cross, and who took that power out of His pocket to raise Himself from the dead and who uses that power to raise us from the dead.

    • Agreed. One thing the Bible and the Creeds agree on is that His created the universe, and has the power to invoke miracles within it.

  4. Norma Cenva says

    Good comments all, and let me add this one too, in the form of a film clip from Schindler’s List.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pBSvbqPX94E

    • anonymous says

      🙂

      great link, thank you

      • Christiane says

        “The quality of mercy is not strained.
        It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
        Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest:
        It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.
        ‘Tis mightiest in the mightiest; it becomes
        The thronèd monarch better than his crown.
        His scepter shows the force of temporal power,
        The attribute to awe and majesty
        Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;
        But mercy is above this sceptered sway.
        It is enthronèd in the hearts of kings;
        It is an attribute to God Himself;”

        (Wm. Shakespeare, ‘The Merchant of Venice’)

  5. Power, I think, is something else than just being able to get your way.

    • anonymous says

      it’s ‘the humility of God’

    • Christiane says

      Good comment, MULE

      “The humble God is simultaneously the exalting and exalted God.”

      Those oppressed should not harm their oppressors by allowing them to continue in their violent and abusing ways. This would be to hate their oppressor—allowing them to walk in their sin. The humble are called to an altogether different path: to use their gifts and their rights not to their own loss, and not to their own benefit, but for the benefit and true blessing of others.

      Christians are not to be a people who embrace or tolerate sinful and abusive relations as a badge of their humility. They are to be a people and church who, like their Lord, use what rights, blessings, and powers they have to bless others, freeing the abused from the perpetrators and freeing the perpetrators from the fears, passions, and beliefs which motivate them to so many acts of hate.

  6. In speaking of my wilderness experience, I never once doubted the existence of God, but the nature of power as taught by evangelicals. I realized it was one of those classic discussions where the problem wasn’t which answer was correct, but the questions and nature of discussions itself was flawed. I won’t say much more here, because it would be my futile attempt to summarize Father Freemen and other eastern writers.

    I will say this, however, Thomas Aquinas sent the western church (and then Protestantism) down a path I wish we had never gone.

  7. “God’s power” is perhaps the ultimate skandalon for the church. We so love being winners instead of losers. We so want to be seen as successful–and we do everything possible to allure God to be our Success Provider.

  8. Interesting that Thanos is so close to Thanatos–the personification of death in Greek mythology.