Thursday, March 31, 2011

What kind of power does God use?

Here's a lengthy quote from Robert Farrar Capon that distills -- or maybe ferments -- some things I've been chewing on for some time. This idea came up again in a series of conversations with my good friend and fellow heretic Curt, who then proceeded to remind me of Capon, who is a good writer I almost never think about. But I dug out his book Kingdom, Grace,Judgment, in which he writes of God's desire to transform the world into a "city" or a "kingdom" -- two terms RFC uses interchangeably to mean that place where God rules as sovereign, making creation what he intended it to be in the first place. But God has a frustrating way of going about this project. Here's Capon:

"On theoretical presumptions, of course, God has all the power he needs to do anything he wants any time he chooses. But such theorizing is a very unscriptural way to approach the subject. It has exactly that let's-sit-the-Bible-down-and-read-it-a-theology-lecture attitude that does nothing but produce frustration with what is actually in the book. Come to Scripture with a nice, respectable notion of an omnipotent God and see what it gets you. Problems, that's what. Problems like: If God has the ability to turn the world into the city, why is he taking his own sweet time about it? Or: If the Bible is about an almighty, all-smart God, why is it so full of divine indirection and delay? Or to say it flat out: If God wants to turn this messed-up world into a city or a kingdom, why doesn't he just knock some heads together, put all the baddies under a large, flat rock, and get on with the job?

The Bible does, of course, have one recorded instance of God's having proposed just such a harsh treatment: the narrative of the Flood in the Book of Genesis. But even that story -- especially that story -- has little comfort in it for theology buffs who like their omnipotence straight up. Notice how it goes.

God, having found all human attempts to build the city hopeless, decides simply to wash everybody but Noah down the drain. By the end of the story, however -- when the final, scriptural point of the episode is made -- it turns out to reveal a different notion of power entirely: God says he is never going to do anything like that again. He says that his answer to the evil that keeps the world from becoming the city of God will not, paradoxically, involve direct intervention on behalf of the city. Instead, he makes a covenant of nonintervention with the world: he sets his bow in the cloud -- the symbolic development of which could be either that he hangs all his effective weapons against wickedness up on the wall or, more bizarrely still, that he points them skyward, at himself instead of us.

After that -- to the consternation of generations of tub-thumpers for a hard-line God -- the Bible becomes practically a rhapsody of indirection. God tells Abraham that he still intends to build the city but proposes an exceedingly strange way of going about it. He says he has infallible plans for the redeemed community but then proceeds to insist it be formed not at some reasonable site, but on the road -- and among the future children of a man who hasn't a single descendant to his name. Furthermore, even when Abraham's childlessness is remedied and God does indeed have a people with whom to build the city, he makes them spend an inordinate amount of time in slavery, wandering, and warfare before he selects a suitable piece of real estate for the venture. Finally, when he does get around to providing them with an actual location, it remains theirs (rather tenuously at that) for only a few hundred years -- hardly longer, it seems, than he felt necessary to engrave Jerusalem as an image on their corporate imagination. They certainly did not possess it long enough, or with sufficient success, for anyone to claim that the city definitively had been built.

As Christians believe, though, God did eventually show up on the property himself for the express purpose of completing the project. In the person of Jesus, the messianic King, he announced that he was bringing in the kingdom and, in general, accomplishing once and for all every last eternal purpose he ever had for the world. And, as Christians also believe, he did just that. But at the end of all the doing, he simply disappeared, leaving -- as far as anybody has been able to see in the two thousand or so years since -- no apparent city, no effective kingdom able to make the world straighten up and fly right. The whole operation began as a mystery, continued as a mystery, came to fruition as a mystery, and to this day continues to function as a mystery. Since Noah, God has evidently had almost no interest in using direct power to fix up the world.

Why? you ask. Well, the first answer is, I don't know, and neither does anyone else. God's reasons are even more hidden than his methods. But I have seen enough of the results of direct intervention to make me rather glad that he seems, for whatever reason, to have lost interest in it.

Direct, straight-line intervening power does, of course, have many uses. With it, you can lift the spaghetti from the plate to your mouth, wipe the sauce off your slacks, carry them to the dry cleaners, and perhaps even make enough money to ransom them back. Indeed, straight-line power ("use the force you need to get the result you want") is responsible for almost everything that happens in the world. And the beauty of it is, it works. From removing the dust with a cloth to removing your enemy with a .45, it achieves its ends in sensible, effective, easily understood ways.

Unfortunately, it has a whopping limitation. If you take the view that one of the chief objects in life is to remain in loving relationships with other people, straight-line power becomes useless. Oh, admittedly, you can snatch your baby boy away from the edge of a cliff and not have a broken relationship on your hands. But just try interfering with his plans for the season when he is twenty, and see what happens, especially if his chosen plans play havoc with your own. Suppose he makes unauthorized use of your car, and you use a little straight-line verbal power to scare him out of doing it again. Well and good. But suppose further that he does it again anyway -- and again and again and again. What do you do next if you are committed to straight-line power? You raise your voice a little more nastily each time till you can't shout any louder. And then you beat him (if you are stronger than he is) until you can't beat any harder. Then you chain him to a radiator till ... but you see the point. At some very early crux in that difficult, personal relationship, the whole thing will be destroyed unless you -- who, on any reasonable view, should be allowed to use straight-line power -- simply refuse to use it, in other words, you decide that instead of dishing out justifiable pain and punishment, you are willing, quite foolishly, to take the beating yourself.

But such a paradoxical exercise of power, please note, is a hundred and eighty degrees away from the straight-line variety. It is, to introduce a phrase from Luther, left-handed power. Unlike the power of the right hand (which, interestingly enough, is governed by the logical, plausibility loving left hemisphere of the brain), left handed power is guided by the more intuitive, open, and imaginative right side of the brain. Left handed power, in other words, is precisely paradoxical power: power that looks for all the world like weakness, intervention that seems indistinguishable from nonintervention. More than that, it is guaranteed to stop no determined evildoers whatsoever. It might, of course, touch and soften their hearts. But then again, it might not. It certainly didn't for Jesus; and if you decide to use it, you should be quite clear that it probably won't for you either. The only thing it does insure is that you will not -- even after your chin has been bashed in -- have made the mistake of closing any interpersonal doors from your side.

Which may not, at first glance, seem like much of a thing to insure, let alone like an exercise worthy of the name of power. But when you come to think of it, it is power -- so much power, in fact, that it is the only thing in the world that evil can't touch. God in Christ died forgiving. With the dead body of Jesus, he wedged open the door between himself and the world and said, 'There! Just try and get me to take that back!' "

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