The Predicament of God: Clayton, Caputo, and Spinning Wagons

It is as self-evident that God is the one who hears the cry of the victim and comforts the downtrodden as it is that the downtrodden are regularly trodden down and their cries ignored, so that on balance it is a question whether “God” makes a dime’s worth of difference in the empirical-historical record… God’s miserable record of hearing the cry of the victim is so bad that one wonders why the Bible keeps bringing up the idea. (Caputo, The Weakness of God, 77)

The idea of God critiqued here so often finds its wagons spinning. This is essentially because the formulation implicitly includes both positive and negative conclusions, i.e. “I prayed and something good happened – ergo God fixed my problem” and “I prayed and nothing happened – so God is obviously teaching me a lesson.” Ultimately, in this kind of binary system, a person ends up being able to basically believe anything one likes about God (78). One ends up with a flat, draining, deterministic, omnipotence-centric, metaphysical setup that, if anything truly new is to get itself expressed, must be ruptured. One really would be better examining the the structures of thought that are running one into such a damn dense, omnishambles of a theistic dead end – all roads lead to nowhere here. In all directions the über-being God has its qualities and characteristics lambasted.

The over-riding picture is one of power and control. A “good,” “loving,” being able to do whatever it wants, that maintains those characteristics, regardless of the outcome. It’s the age old theodicy problem and the picture of the God behind it, that so many theists and atheists share. Of course, the escape strategy for many has been to so totally evacuate the definitions of goodness and love, that whim of power is what controls their meaning. This manifests itself in the above positive and negative conclusions. Again, reevaluating this whole (power) discourse and the idea of God behind it, will help us find a solution (On the Mystery: Discerning Divinity in Process by Catherine Keller is a great place to start such a revaluation). One could do this exegetically (I’m not), the Scriptures and their (multiplicity of) pictures of God do not point anywhere near omnipotence. I’m settling for a more specific (and slightly abstract)  discussion about how these spinning (theological) wagons may be redirected.

In their The Predicament of Belief Philip Clayton and Steven Knapp, helpfully and importantly, apply a rigorous analysis to central insights of the Christian tradition – including, most relevantly to this post, the idea of Ultimate Reality and the inevitable theodical problems divine action bears within itself – to help us escape the above sort of mess. As they formulate their “Christian minimalism” they come to a variety of conclusions that are undergirded by what they describe as a “no-less-than-personal-God.”

Their proposals include,

  1. God cannot intervene in the world, to change or manipulate events or physical conditions, because cosmological and moral regularity and emergence depend upon this.
  2. God cannot intervene because if God could and did, God would be obligated to intervene ad infinitum.
  3. God’s activity is (self-)limited to the region of the mind, where God does not alter personality but operates as a weak force or lure, acting as the source of prompting or as the draw of humanity to greater love and concern for others, or knowledge and enterprise.
  4. God is understood panentheistically – as that which bears the world within itself, acting as its depth, feeling and suffering with it, but being in some sense irreducible to the world, as such. This would be opposed to a straight forward theism that distinguishes God as an utterly separate being over against, and quite external to, the world.
  5. God can maintain an eschatological justice-making as the conditions of a (re)new(ed) universe-world could be significantly improved, with God only using power to the degree that new and beneficial conditions emerge that do not impinge upon natural and moral development.

Clayton and Knapp have done powerful and stimulating work, avoiding the problems of metaphysical omni-power. Their conception of Ultimate Reality is deeply rooted in kenosis and the weak relation of God to the world. It is a deeply thought provoking book and bears serious reflection (probably not on offer here).

What I find rather unconvincing, ultimately, is the expressly theological manner in which the idea of “God” is worked out in. That may sound absurd but, as I see it, there is little suggested in Clayton and Knapp’s conclusions about divine action that do not work or apply if one were to use the word or name God “atheologically” – that is without overt concern for whether there is a being or a ground of being with some super-personal aspect. For example, I mean

  • if one were to disavow concern for an ultimate reality that resides behind the name “God” and think phenomenologically. God, here, is the name where our deepest, impossible, longings and yearnings get themselves expressed – pulling us toward the openness of an absolute future, that desires us as much as we it.
  • or, if one where to use “God” as a pseudonym for an all-encompassing material experience, like Whitehead’s ‘Principle of Concretion,’ that forces universal creativity to ground and instantiate itself.

One, here, could use panentheistic language in a functional sense to intimate how the idea expressed in the name “God” relates to the world and creatures, without implying that it describes something of the ontological characteristics of metaphysical, divine reality. One could, I would hope, do this while feeling and being quite “Christian.”

In essence, I think, this Christian minimalism could be a little more minimalistic – which I do not think they, at the very least, work out as fully they could. Clayton and Knapp achieve a lot, while still doing metaphysics, and avoid many theodical pitfalls while working out what an Ultimate Reality w/could minimally be like. Yet, part of me thinks, What exactly is the point?

One avoids the same problems as Clayton and Knapp if one comes at the name God in a phenomenological and atheological manner:

  1. God cannot intervene for regularities or obligations sake.
  2. God affects the mind with a lure and a calling, because God is the name of all that we desire with a desire beyond desire – God is here, also, a weak force.
  3. God here functions panentheistically because we are in this name and it is in us – it is the depth of our ultimate concern, all the while irreducible to that concern.
  4. God as the name that bears within itself an absolute past and future that contain a depth to newness that we are always open to. Additionally, God as the depth of a call that comes from the absolute other (past, present, or future) – be they oppressed or oppressors – is a call to justice and renewal.

(I haven’t here even tried to unpack the Whiteheadian pan-experiential sense in which this a theologically idea of God might work.)

Jack Caputo puts all of what (I think) I’m trying to get at in a more thorough manner in The Weakness of God,

By “God” … I mean a call that solicits and disturbs what is there, an event that adds a level of significance and meaning, of provocation and solicitation to what is there, that makes it impossible for the world, for what is there, to settle solidly in place, to consolidate, to close in upon itself. By the name of “God” I mean the event of this solicitation, an event of deconsolidation, an electrifying event-ing disturbance, the solvent of the weak force of this spectral spirit who haunts the world as its bad conscience, or who breathes lightly and prompts its most inspired moments, all the while readily conceding that there are other names than the name of God. I am trying to save the name of God, not absolutise it. (39-40)

The predicament with which this post started, that so adequately gets at the heart of Clayton and Knapp’s own predicament, is as much resolved I feel with Caputo’s thoughts as Clayton and Knapp’s own. It is in being committed to serious thinking that new ideas of God – a name that bears so much of human hope and desire – that we might allow our wagons to cease their senseless revolutions and commit to modes of being that foster deep change. Find a deep clarity and consistency that can connect words like “goodness” and “love” to the name, “God,” – as it eschews the omni-powerful discourse and its dead ends – in ways that see all that it contains embodied meaningfully.