Still no tricks (And God saw that it was Good II)

My last post said there would be more.

A criticism which could readily be leveled at that post is that if you remove virtually all the supernatural element from the activity of God, today or in the Bible, you are left with something very similar to secular humanism. Richard Beck struggles with the same problem in a post from February. In it, he is talking of “collapsing” the transcendent aspect of loving God into the immanent aspect of loving your neighbour; he talks of two dimensions, the vertical, supernatural one and the horizontal, material one.

He is building there on the back of, inter alia, John Caputo’s “Weakness of God” concept, about which he blogged previously, in the course of a series of posts in which he interestingly linked Caputo’s work with that of Walter Wink in his majestic “Powers” trilogy.

Both of us are left vulnerable to the question “Where is the majestic, holy, all-powerful saving God about whom we sing so regularly in all this talk of a weak God, a non-supernatural God?”

And yet, I note, we do not, by and large, think that we can pray and expect mountains to be moved (Matt. 17:20), or the earth to stop revolving so that the sun appears to stand still (Joshua 5-6) or a sea to be divided allowing us to walk across the ocean floor (Ex. 14). I don’t myself think this is because (as Jesus suggests) we have too little faith, I think it is because we have too much experience, too much knowledge of how the world actually works. We pray for healing (and sometimes there is healing), we pray for personal transformation (and quite often that occurs) and we pray for a satisfactory outcome to complex situations where we cannot confidently predict the outcome.

In that last case, I have never met a circumstance in which I can confidently state that prayer had any effect beyond what random chance would suggest, once I strip away a variety of perceptual errors which everyone suffers from – such as availability heuristic (here’s a frighteningly large list of these cognitive biases). However, there is a serious psychological plus in hoping for a good outcome, and anyone with some knowledge of motivational courses will appreciate the advantages of the “can do” attitude (which irritates me hugely, as my psychology doesn’t tend to the “foolishly optimistic” as I’d tend to describe it).

So, I’d argue that very many of my friends who enthusiastically say they believe that God intervenes supernaturally actually, considering what they pray for, think much as I do. In practice, we act as if God doesn’t intervene in ways which suspend natural law, but we recognise that spontaneous healings and personal transformations do happen as a result of prayer, for no reason we can otherwise divine through the use of scientific rationalist principles. Healings and personal transformations are, probably, both aspects of the fact that the mind has many capabilities about which we know very little.

However, although I accept that Caputo’s theology describes reasonably well the generality of what can actually be observed as God’s activity in the world today, I do not experience God as weak or non-supernatural. When I talk about experiencing God, I am talking about a feeling of immense power and unlimited capability. What I experience is something about which I can comfortably say “God is omnipresent”, but about which I feel omnipotence and omniscience as well. Yes, I know that philosophically omnipotence and omniscience are faulty concepts, but there is still this overpowering feeling.

It’s for this reason that I think there is much to be gained by considering the concept of kenosis not just in respect of Jesus but in respect of God in relation to creation more generally (as I touched on in “Rather different answers in Genesis”). I see God as, in principle, capable of tinkering with creation in a micro-managing way, but as not doing so except in a very limited way. And that way is primarily via human minds (I don’t rule out the possibility of non-human minds as well, but that’s pure speculation). We can and do receive revelation, we can and do have our motivations and mental abilities changed for us (and via the mental abilities, some physical abilities such as healing and strength).

I hold out a thin chance, as well, that there may be some effect other than the psychological where complex factors are at work, but only a thin chance. We do not generally expect that praying for a lottery win will be successful!

God, after all, “saw that it was good” in the Genesis 1 creation account. No need, therefore, to change it.

Just a need for us to come to terms with how it is that it could be good, and about that, prayer is very much needed.

On to part three…

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.