Omnipotence, superheroes and Stormzy

Stephen Morris writes, in a message on the “Exploring the Universal Christ” facebook group “I see now why so many American evangelicals almost exclusively worship a God of immense might and power, a God who resembles Zeus, hurling lightning bolts and dispensing judgment against infidels. A God who is always in control of everything and everybody. We become like the God we worship, so an omnipotent Being is the very thing our egos aspire to be like. We want to be omnipotent, we want to be judge, jury and executioner, we want to be in control of everything and everybody.”

Indeed, perhaps this also explains the popularity of superhero narratives (which aren’t restricted to the products of Marvel and D.C. Comics – almost any action movie you watch involves a hero who is superhuman in at least a modest sense). I’ve written about “God as superhero” before – the linked post lost me a few acquaintances (which facebook calls “friends”) because – well – anything you call “God” has to be “more than” everything, doesn’t it? Anselm’s “ontological argument” rests entirely on that premise, after all.

Of course, with great power comes great responsibility. Amusingly, this phrase is commonly attributed to another superhero, Spiderman (in the comic and film, it was actually said to Spiderman rather than by him), though its first recorded use seems to be in a document of the French Revolutionary Committee of Public Safety in 1793. I think this has to be a truism, though if so, it is a little surprising that there isn’t a much earlier use quoted. There is a lot of play with this concept in recent superhero literature and films.

If that be the case, with all-powerfulness comes all-responsibility. Perhaps our egos do aspire to be omnipotent, as Stephen writes, but they rarely aspire to be responsible for everything. If God is omnipotent, we are logically incapable of doing anything by ourselves, and need saving – and that is both where the other potential ego-identification in superhero movies comes from and the basis for the common Christian thinking (emanating, I think, from the Reformed and particularly the Calvinist stream of thought) that we are entirely worthless and only God can save us. Or, of course, your superhero of choice. We are maybe slightly better represented by Fay Wray than by Christopher Reeve, and we need saving (rather than to save) more often than Stephen’s American evangelical would like – at least, any time he or she was not in church. In church, humanity is entirely powerless and helpless.

This seems to me to lie behind Stormzy’s song “Blinded by your Grace”, which he performed recently at Glastonbury to rapturous applause. It’s a decent song, and perhaps goes some way to filling the void of Christian rap (“Christian music” has colonised folk music fairly extensively, some pop music and a bit of rock; I await the dawn of “Christian techno” and “Christian Death Metal” with a feeling of dread…). The same tendency similarly lies behind what I’ve heard referred to as the “prayers of abject self-abasement” in the Anglican communion service, which my vicar tends to prune down to one from the more normal three (two before, one after communion) – as he says, once is really enough…

The trouble here is that the line of Christian reasoning apparent in Luther and Calvin (and, of course, in most of Evangelicalism) is hopelessly schizoid. On the one hand, God has to be omnipotent (and omniscient, and omnipresent, and omni-everything else) – because, as I’ve heard from many conservative Christians, “otherwise He isn’t worthy of worship”, and as such only God can save us; we do need another hero.

But on the other hand, in this conception, God is not omniresponsible. It’s we mortals who are responsible for all the bad in the world (original sin), and we are incapable of doing anything good in and of ourselves, but somehow capable of (and doing) all the bad things. “Total Depravity” in the Calvinist schema.

I’m sorry, but this just doesn’t work. If God has all the power, God also has all the responsibility. We (and by that I mean the Reformed tradition in Christianity together with much of the rest of Western expressions of the faith) seem to want to combine divine power not with divine responsibility but with divine irresponsibility – and my mind turns to Hancock again. The corollary is that we want to combine human powerlessness with human total responsibility.

It’s just black and white, all or nothing thinking – and if I’ve learned anything in life, it’s that there’s always a middle (which, in this thinking, is an excluded middle) – and that not infrequently, the middle is the only area which describes reality, as both extreme poles are just fictions. I think the God of the omnis is just such a fiction, just as I think the totally depraved human being is a fiction. Yes, this means that I don’t believe that God is omnipotent (or, indeed, omniscient), and it also means that I consider that we do have some power to do good or evil. This makes me, I suppose at least somewhat Pelagian (and so heretical), and also closer to Judaism (which recognises both a yetzer-ha-tov and a yetzer-ha-ra, capacities for or inclinations toward both good and evil).

My conservative friend would no doubt repeat their comment – “so how is God worthy of worship, if he isn’t omni-anything?” (actually, I think God is omnipresent, but that’s the only “omni” I accept). One answer is to point out that our “object of ultimate concern”, as Paul Tillich described God, doesn’t remotely have to be all of everything – a very large amount of something laudable (such as love, or compassion) will do quite nicely. I might also be tempted to comment that there is no way I could love the Calvinists’ God-concept, and that I wouldn’t feel that worthy of worship – because I don’t respect tyrrany or irresponsibility, and power without acceptance of responsibility is both of those. This God-concept is a monster – I could fear it, and that’s about that.

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