Sunday, November 21, 2010

The Omni-Charateristics of God (Part 5: The Problem of Evil)

This will be my fifth post in a five part series discussing the common characteristics of God and how I see them in light of my universalism. The five parts are:
  1. Omnibenevolence (God is all-loving)
  2. Omnipresence (God is present everywhere in space and time)
  3. Omniscience (God is all-knowing, past, present, and future)
  4. Omnipotence (God is all-powerful)
  5. The Problem of Evil (The question of why, if God has the above 4 characteristics, evil exists in the universe)
In my final post in this series, I will discuss what is commonly called the Problem of Evil. Basically, why does pain and suffering exist in the world, if God is omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent? For me, it is the most significant problem in theology.  Before I begin writing, I wish to make one thing clear. Many philosophers and theologians have proposed solutions to these problems, and others have created counter-arguments. However, I do not wish to give an overview of these arguments. Dozens of books have been written on this subject, and I doubt I am able to do a better job than them. What I desire is to write about my personal thoughts on this dilemma from the perspective of my universalism. 

Our world is full of suffering. Natural disasters, plagues, famines, wars, and death. No individual on this planet can escape pain for his or her entire life. Yet, we are told that God is all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-loving. How can this be?

In the creation story of Genesis, the Fall of Man is brought about when Adam and Eve gain the knowledge of good and evil. This is often seen to be humankind's downfall. If only Eve had obeyed God and not eaten the fruit! Yet, I feel too few people critically think about this story. What is it that separates us from other animals? Consciousness, free-will and morality. Because we are self-aware and free, we have the ability to make decisions, not on instinct, but on knowing the difference between right and wrong, good and evil. If we had not eaten the fruit of this tree, we would be innocent. But innocent is not good. For how can one be good if one does not know what good is?

Yes, the knowledge of good and evil is a burden. It makes our lives infinitely more complicated than bacteria, plants, or animals. And our ability to choose means we will choose wrong, and we will suffer. But who would honestly give up that knowledge? Theoretically, an "innocent" person could kill millions. Of course, they would not be evil, because they would not know their actions are evil. To me, the thought is terrifying. Without this choice, we cannot better ourselves. Without this choice, we cannot become more like God. I believe God knew exactly what kind of universe He was making. He knew the pain it would involve. I doubt He made this decision lightly. But He also knew the kind of creatures it would eventually create. Not ignorant robots, but human beings not only made in His image, but who learned to grow into His image.

Theoretically, God has the power to stop all suffering. Yet, I believe God gave us free-will. Truthfully, it was probably the hardest thing God has ever done, just as it is hard for any parent to send a child into the world, knowing the child will suffer. But God knows we must make these choices for ourselves for them to have any true meaning. We cannot remain children forever. God desires a relationship with beings who can understand Him, at least in some small way. And the only way God has the power to achieve this is to give up His control over us and grant us the ability to choose, the ability to learn.

Evil, however, can only be defeated by love. God's love, unlike His knowledge or His power, has no limits. Yet, it cannot prevent our current suffering. God loves us so much, He is willing to let us suffer now for a greater existence later. I realize this is probably little comfort to those in pain. What I do find comforting, however, if knowing that we do not suffer alone. God suffers with us. Every tear we shed is matched by one of His. God's love for us allowed Him to create a universe where we would learn the difference between good and evil. God's love for us allowed Him to give us free-will. God's love for us allows us to love Him back.

As a universalist, I believe God never abandons a single soul, no matter how "evil" it may be. God sees our suffering and understands our sins. He wants nothing more than to guide us toward Him. Yet He would never force us. God desires freely given love, for love forcibly taken is worthless. Evil is the absence of love, and God works tirelessly to reveal His love in a way which does not violate our free-will. Yet God does not work in vain. Although I may not understand why certain terrible events occur, I trust God to hold us through the pain. Eventually, I believe, it will be worth it. By learning the difference between good and evil, we will become more like God and truly be His children. During the painful journey, we must remember not only our destination, but the loving Father who is with us every single step of the way, who will wait until every single one of His children comes home. We must remember His promise: 

God will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away." (Revelation 21:4)

Monday, November 8, 2010

The Omni-Charateristics of God (Part 4: Omnipotence)

This will be my fourth post in a five part series discussing the common characteristics of God and how I see them in light of my universalism. The five parts are:
  1. Omnibenevolence (God is all-loving)
  2. Omnipresence (God is present everywhere in space and time)
  3. Omniscience (God is all-knowing, past, present, and future)
  4. Omnipotence (God is all-powerful)
  5. The Problem of Evil (The question of why, if God has the above 4 characteristics, evil exists in the universe)
For my fourth post in this series, I examine God's omnipotence. The word omnipotence comes from the Latin words "omnis" (all) and "potens" (powerful, mighty). To say that God is omnipotent is to say that He is all-powerful. Similar to omniscience, saying God is omnipotent is controversial.

The first problem with omnipotence is giving it a detailed definition. What exactly do we mean when we say "God is all-powerful". Do we mean to God can do absolutely anything? Or are their "limitations" to God's power? If so, are these limitations intrinsic or are the self-imposed?

Slight warning: This post gets a bit philosophically deep. I hope I am expressing these concepts in the clearest way possible, but I realize I might not be, so if you find something confusing, it is most likely my fault. Please feel free to ask for any clarification in the comments.

The Paradox of Omnipotence:

The most obvious limitation to God's ability to do absolutely anything is formulated in the Paradox of Omnipotence. This paradox can take many forms, but most commonly appears as the question "Can God create a rock so heavy He cannot lift it?". If God cannot create such a rock, then He is not omnipotent. If He can create such a rock, then He cannot lift it. Again, He is shown not to be omnipotent. The obvious solution usually given to this issue is to formulate that God can only do things which are logically possible. God cannot create a rock He cannot lift, draw a circle whose ratio of circumference to diameter is anything but π, or any other logical impossibility. 

The limitation of God's power to logical possibilities is an intrinsic limitation. It is not that God chooses to lack the ability to do the logically impossible, but that the logically impossible is meaningless when describing what God (or anything for that matter) is able to do. Assuming God does exists, He himself would be logically consistent (since, if He wasn't, He wouldn't exist) and a logically consistent being acts only in logically consistent ways, not because of a lack of power to act otherwise, but because there is no otherwise way to act.

Overall, this solution is fairly uncontroversial and widely accepted in the most Christian denominations.While this paradox deserves genuine thought and consideration, most religious thinkers and believers do not feel it threatens God's omnipotence.

God's Nature:

Another difficulty with God's omnipotence deals with God's nature. Most belief systems assign specific characteristics to God, such as God being all-loving or God never lying. This situation presents us with three options:

1. God can, and does, violate these characteristics when He wants to. God could hate someone or God could lie if He choose to, even if He generally does not.
2. God can violate His nature if He wants to, but chooses not to. God could hate someone or God could lie, but He does not ever do something which goes against His essential nature. This would be a self-imposed limitation.
3. God cannot violate His nature even if He wanted to. It is not possible for God to hate someone or for God to lie. This would be an intrinsic limitation.

First, I will state that my personal beliefs rule out the first option. I am sure there are people who disagree with me on this, but the whole point of this series is to analyze the characteristics of God from my universalist perspective. My belief in God's infinite love for every living being means God cannot hate someone or lie to them.

This problem presents more of a challenge than the last one. While it is obvious that God cannot do anything logically impossible, the exact definition of "logically impossible" is fuzzy here. Is it logically impossible for God to go against His own nature? If so, option 3 is the solution. If not, option 2.

Personally my answer is easy: I don't know. I say this because there is no practical difference between option 2 and option 3. I believe that God does not violate His own nature. Whether this is because doing to is a logical impossibility or whether it is God's own choice is irrelevant, because the outcome is the same for both options.

God's Omnipotence vs. Human Free-Will:

To begin this section, I will state that I do believe in free-will, and my following argument is based on the assumption that free-will is true. Sometime in the future I will post on why I believe this to be so, but I do not want to make this post excessively long.

The last question I will address is the interaction between God's omnipotence and our own free-will. Does God's omnipotence violate our free-will? Before we can answer that, we must ask another question: Does violating our free-will go against God's nature?

These questions depend greatly on the definition of free-will. Obviously, humans do not have absolute free-will. For example, we do not choose the circumstance of our birth (the timing, location, our gender, our genetics, our family, etc). Many circumstances of our lives are not in our control, but in God's. In this case, God's omnipotence could be said to violate our free-will. Or we could say He does not because we have no control over those choices and, therefore, they do not fall under the category of free-will. This problem lies mostly within the realm of semantics.

However, there are many aspects of our life we do have control over. We control who we are friends with, the kind of job we have, and our personal belief system. We choose whether or not we believe in God and, if we do, what kind of God we believe in. Personally, I believe that God could violate our free-will in these circumstances, if He chose. But, I also believe that, because God is all-loving, God respects our free-will to make our own choices and therefore would not violate those choices. Our purpose in life is to learn to be good people. While there are many paths to this goal, we must choose our own path or we are nothing more than God's robots. It is our free-will which defines us as human beings. If God desires a true relationship with us, He cannot violate our free-will.

These are by no means the only arguments against omnipotence. It is a complicated topic, philosophically and religiously. I do not believe in a God who is absolutely all-powerful, for such a God defies logic. Yet I cannot actually define the limits of God's power. I do not  feel God would violate His own nature or our own free-will with His omnipotence, even if He could. I have no way to prove these propositions, they are just what I believe.

Basically, I am not comfortable giving God the label omnipotent. There are limits, both intrinsic and self-imposed, on God's power. However, His power to love us, forgive us, and heal us are infinite, and these are the powers of God I consider absolutely vital. Many religious believers make this claim, yet their theology does not support it. They point to these amazing characteristics of God with one hand, and everlasting torment for a majority of humanity with the other. It is absolutely ludicrous. God's power is not demonstrated in fear, abandonment, and torture, but patience, mercy, and above all else, love.