After listening to an interview with Richard Rohr on the Deconstructionists podcast, it got me thinking about the idea of a “vulnerable” God, and I decided to revisit a recent discussion of various definitions of deity found in Eric Hall’s recent (November 2016 Fortress Press) book cheekily entitled God: Everything You Need to Know About the Almighty. Hall, a professor of theology and philosophy at Carroll College in Montana, wrote his book primarily for a younger podcast audience as it belongs to the Homebrewed Christianity series. I think his examination of the options and his peculiar way of imagining the issues is enlightening. He uses some clever and humorous images to draw out the parameters of the discussion. In summary, here are the key ones.
Karate Master—Mr. Miyagi from The Karate Kid is the representative image of the stable god of Classical Theism. This God, like Miyagi is not easily provoked or moved, but don’t start messing with him. However, God’s power is also in line with his character. This power, character, and order underlies all existence since God is the Creator. As a philosophical explanation, Miyagi seems unavoidable as an explanation and ground of all that is, but, in Hall’s appraisal, he appears to lack the theology of the cross, the vulnerability, that is distinctive to Christianity. The creation has a certain autonomy to go its own way, but the relationship (in the familiar meaning of the word) between God and creation is a bit hard to understand. This is the basic conception of God that you can find among many Jews, Muslims, and Christians prior to the late middle ages.
Hippie—imagine having a fun-loving, Tai Chi practicing, drum-beating hippie aunt, if you don’t already. The God of process theology would be like her. The world is free to be whatever it wants to be. She will give you advice and try to call out your best self, but you are completely free. She is alongside you, not above you. The element that matters the most in this conception is relationality, the one that appears to be missing from Miyagi.
French—No one ever expected a young peasant girl to be leading the French armies, likewise, the God of Hermeneutics (think Caputo) upsets our expectations. The Joan of Arc God is a deconstructive self-revelation under the theology of the cross. The God of Hermeneutics/Deconstruction reminds us that the world can be other than it is at the moment and that God is not tame or even easily assumable into human language. It’s focus is the constant breaking open of our language. She keeps you off balance.
Hall argues that the Classical Theism, specifically in its Thomistic form, is where we need to begin. It is ontologically primary. He cautions that it’s important to not get this conception mixed up with what he calls the God of Voluntarism (what he calls the “Jersey Shore” view of omnipotence). But is a God who lacks any kind of vulnerability acceptable as an object of worship within the Christian faith? Can this God engage in a relational way? Can the insights of Process Theology and Deconstructive/Hermeneutic Theology be incorporated into the Classical schema? Part of the problem is that the stable grounding provided by the classical view is thought of as unrelated, when it is, in fact, deeply related.
Here is the summative quote for the chapter:
While Miyagi works perfectly well in a philosophical context, he won’t be able to do full justice to Christian theology and it’s biblical underpinnings, not without incorporating these important ideas from Hippie Aunt and Joan of Arc. If God is one who saves, God most be able to draw out of us our best, most unselfish possibilities, which means God must relate to us. So while God’s primary philosophical meaning has to do with the identity undergirding all things in the world, God’s biblical identity pertains to relating to this world and calling it back to the divinely pulsating melody not merely its own. The incomprehensible God is one who actively beckons this world, one who calls us to reject the disharmonies within the world as we’ve become familiar and even enhance, and stand once more in cosmic solidarity with both God and all of creation as God shines light on these things anew.
To my mind, this is a restatement of Classical Theism with reference to the criticism of the followers of Whitehead and Derrida. Much depends on how you interpret ‘biblical identity’. For some conservative process-relational thinkers, the descriptions of God in the scriptures are taken quite literally. If you’ve been around the block in these discussions, you know that the term ‘biblical identity’ does not have a fixed meaning for all parties. The anthropomorphism in the Bible can be interpreted in a variety of ways. Additionally, take even a term like ‘Almighty’, which is an expression that is not as obviously anthropomorphic. What does having all power, being the ruler of everything, mean? Does it refer to a voluntarist view of God ? Or does it refer to the view that God is the trustworthy and stable center of everything?
I believe that the classical definitions of omnipotence, immutability, etc. still hold, but certainly need to be invested with Christocentric meanings. If I’m reading Hall correctly, I imagine he would agree. In the podcast interview below, Hall makes the statement, “We can have this relational expression without saying that this defines the ontology of God.” Another set of questions revolves around how deep the vulnerability of God goes. Jesus on the cross is God in vulnerability, but is the Cosmic Christ, the Logos, the Word essentially vulnerable (Rohr)? Can a deep vulnerability coexist with an equally deep stability?