Divine Omnipotence, the Threat to the Self, and Love

I spent the weekend in the wonderful state of Oregon, flying into Portland, spending the evenings and mornings in Newburg, and visiting Lake Oswego Sunday afternoon for a dear friend’s wedding. The flora was incredibly lush and beautiful and green, and it’s difficult to not be overwhelmed by Oregon’s vibrant, mossy forest. The sun didn’t come out once the entire weekend, and the rain hardly let up; it was all very beautiful.

I killed almost all my travel time—waiting in the terminal, during layover in San Francisco International Airport, and on the plane—absorbed in Katherine Sonderegger’s Systematic Theology: Volume 1, The Doctrine of God. So far, I have not been one to appreciate systematic theology, but this is a rewarding, intriguing, challenging, labyrinthine work. I can’t get enough of it.

While waiting in San Francisco for my flight to Portland, I immersed myself in Sonderegger’s chapter on God’s omnipotence. As she surveys, and is well-known to any theologian who has dabbled in contemporary theology, omnipotence has come under attack as a divine attribute in the recent decades. In the most extreme form, in process theology, God’s is utterly denied omnipotence and therefore has no power to act in creation. Rather, according to the process theologians, God merely is a sympathetic and loving presence to human sufferers and suffering. God only woos us towards virtue, but has no ability or power in the world otherwise.

Yet, Sonderegger is unwilling to go this route. She unabashedly upholds the doctrine of God’s omnipotence and power; but she transfigures the traditional dogma. It won’t be necessary to dive into the details of her development of the doctrine here: that’s not my purpose. Rather, I am interested in her development of God’s Subjectivity.

Sonderegger describes God as “Subjectivity in Objectivity.” That is, through the created reality God makes himself available as Object (something we can look at, touch, examine, consider) we find signs of God as Subject, meaning him as Person. (An analogy might be found in how a smile on a loved one’s face is less an indication of their existence as an object—that is, the parabolic curvature of the lips, the contraction of the muscles, the stretching of the skin, the chemical processes involved therein—but rather their invisible existence as a subject, as one pleased to see you after a while being away, happy, loved and in love.)   

Moses’ encounter with the burning bush is Sonderegger’s paradigm example. The bush is an earthly, creaturely reality, in this moment bursting forth with the divine Light and Power. This Power does not destroy the bush: it is unconsumed. This is God-as-Object: “the fiery Sign.” Yet, from this Object pours forth the divine Subject: in the bush resplendent with divine Power, God interacts with Moses, person to Person, and speaks his own divine name: I AM THAT I AM. This is divine Subject.

Moses can bear to hear the Name. But it is not so for all. Sometimes coming into relation with the divine Name is destructive to the human person: “Jeremiah dares to say: ‘you have overpowered me, and you have prevailed.’ This Word, this Subject cannot be brooked, cannot be endured…Jeremiah has encountered the I AM and it is the end of him.” Another example would be Job, who when faced from the voice of the Lord from the storm, proclaims:

I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, 
     but now my eye sees you; 
therefore I despise myself, 
     and repent in dust and ashes.    

Job’s encounter with God only led him to self-contempt. And we must remember, Job’s character is constantly maintained throughout the narrative of the story: he’s a stand-up guy. We cannot say that he was lead to this self-contempt because of his overwhelming sinfulness. The same goes for Jeremiah. We are told that he was known and consecrated by God from before he came out of his mother’s womb. It is merely that encountering the divine Person broke these men, overpowered them, crushed them. Sonderegger writes about Job, “[He] alone can stand with the prophet [Jeremiah] in raw pain and self-annihilation before the molten Presence of the Lord,” and about Jeremiah, “Nothing that Rudolph Otto or Carl Jung can say about the numinous, the unmediated encounter with the Primordial, can touch the uncanny power and terror of Jeremiah’s interior nakedness before and within the Lord. That too is the uncontained Vitality and Power of the Divine Subject, alive in and to the creature.”

So, there’s something about encountering the Subject of God, God as interrelational Person that is terrifying and destructive, that threatens to tear us apart. This is God in his utter, uncontainable power and terrible freedom. This is, in a word, holiness. And it is terrifying. God is dangerous.

I wrestled with this. I want a comforting, soothing God. To be sure, God is these things! He is the great Comforter. But God is also more than this. There is also something about the interrelational encounter with God that is overwhelming and overpowering—that threatens to crush you into dust. It’s something I’ve experienced and continue to. Like Jacob at the Jabbok river, his tendons beginning to come undone at the touch of that mysterious Angel, we cannot relate to God, person to Person, without beginning to come undone.

I sat during my friend’s wedding as the officiant shared his word for the bride and groom and for all present. He shared personal stories that each one had written for each other, sweet and pleasant anecdotes that encapsulated their ever-growing love for one another. One in particular stood out to me, something the bride had written about her groom: “I began to feel weirdly insufficient.” I looked to the groom. Nothing about him as an object was intimidating or overwhelming to my existential status. To put it one way, his form there a bit in front me, it had no effect on my personal evaluation of my own sufficiency. None whatsoever. So why hers?      

Really, the answer should be obvious for anyone who has felt romantic love. Love, that word with so many meanings, so difficult to precisely define. What I mean here when I say love is something like this: when you look at someone and their faces shines. For you they become the most concrete and tangible expression of goodness, truth, and beauty that you have ever experienced. Being in their presence is something like a transcendental experience. Everything awful, temporal, and decaying is for now sloughed off, time stops, and in them you experience something of the eternal.

When you see someone in this way, when you taste the pinnacle of goodness, beauty, and truth in them-as-a-subject, their inwardness, their soul and spirit, if we can so speak, it is difficult to not feel insufficient, inadequate, unworthy. Their unique, unreplicable personality (though not as an abstract concept but as a living, dynamic soul) leads you into hyperawareness of your nature as flawed, broken dust. Their presence as a subject, their I am, is overwhelming, overpowering to your own, threatening, like a holy spear to run you through in all your worthlessness, to deliver you back to the earth and worms. Like Job it is easy to despise yourself in the face someone you love. Love is terrifying and threatening.

And so Mio felt a strange insufficiency around James, brought about by the approach of her soul to his—to a degree that is only really possible through romantic love. It’s not something that I could know, as my subjectivity stands much further yonder (as it should) than theirs stand to one another. Hence, my curiosity at her statement of insufficiency vis a vis this man, the groom. As they stood there—form, material, chemical makeup: object—we the audience were made privy, as for a moment the curtain was pulled back, and we glimpsed the bride and groom’s inwardness—invisible to the rest of the world—face to face with one another.

How does any of this relate to God? God is Subjectivity—powerful, living, beautiful, terrible Subjectivity (though this is surely not all we can say about him). Transcendent of our own understanding and experience of subject, and yet like it as well. If we are so easily brought to self-contempt when we allow our subjectivity, our soul, to stand naked in the presence of another in love—if even this, coming very near the soul of another flawed, lowly human, threatens to undo us, leads us to despise ourselves—how much more the divine Subject! God’s raw Subjectivity in God’s powerful, terrible, overpowering Love would threaten to undo, to annihilate, to return to the dust. Like the bride before her groom. Yet, were God to reveal this raw Subjectivity, there would be no place hide, no relief, no abeyance. We can hide our own subjectivity from others, choosing to reveal it only to those whom we have deemed trustworthy and safe. We can also reject others subjectivity when they open it to us and turn our face from them in disdain. This is all part of why in marriage—the place of the fullest revelation of your naked soul to another—the vows are so significant. It would hardly be possible otherwise. Were God to fully expose his Subjectivity, there would be no hiding ourselves, no choice, no turning away—only pure Fire.  

We want a God who is tame, who won’t bother us too much. And God, in his utter love and mercy does hide himself. He is pleased to stand behind the scenes, so to say—to sustain us all even with no acknowledgement for himself if we choose not to give it. But God is not always so safe. The encounter with God’s Subject, as Living Power and Fire, the voice that speaks I AM THAT I AM, this threatens to overwhelm, to undo, to destroy. It is a fearful thing. I agree with Sonderegger here; I don’t want a tame God.

So I struggle with this concept.

However, it has brought me some comfort to see an analogy in human romantic love, to reframe God’s terrible, destructive Subjectivity in the context of divine Eros. If two people coming close to each other in their subjectivity, the nakedness of their souls, can cause self-contempt and feelings of insufficiency—and this is a beautiful, life-giving, poem-inspiring thing!—then perhaps the struggle with God’s Subjectivity is something like it—something terrifyingly beautiful and beautifully terrifying—a furnace of Divine Love that cannot be contained, threatens to undo us all, drives us to self-contempt in the face of its overwhelming beauty and goodness.

I’ll leave you with a poem that I think helps, at least in part, put words to and make beautiful what I’ve tried to explore:

The dove descending breaks the air 
With flame of incandescent terror 
Of which the tongues declare 
The one discharge from sin and error. 
The only hope, or else despair 
     Lies in the choice of pyre or pyre— 
     To be redeemed from fire by fire. 

     Who then devised the torment? Love. 
Love is the unfamiliar Name 
Behind the hands that wove 
The intolerable shirt of flame 
Which human power cannot remove. 
     We only live, only suspire 
     Consumed by either fire or fire.
                       -T. S. Eliot, "Little Gidding," IV


Author: Tyler F Nunley

My thoughts on God, the world, and the Bible

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