It Ain’t Just A Song, Baby (more thoughts on God)

There’s this song that came out some time ago by this guy named Rich Mullins. In the years since its release, his song has become a non-denominational church staple. It’s called “Awesome God”. The song is basically a litany of what makes God well, awesome (and if I were Michael Palin I might add that we’re all pretty impressed down here). His list, set to sweeping strings and full chorus, is accompanied by one of the catchiest choruses in the history of contemporary Christian music. (I know that those of you who know the song are humming it right now). But this is all besides the point. The song’s list of God’s deeds brings up the perennial question asked by laymen, theologians, and (heaven knows why) philosophers — exactly how awesome is God? Of course at the heart of the question is the question of God’s omnipotence. I thought that I’d look up what “omnipotence” means before I’d venture any opinion on the subject. This is what I found: omnipotence is defined as “infinite in power” and “having very great or unlimited authority or power”. What really struck in my mind was the word “unlimited” (I’ll get back to why it did later). Ok, there’s already a problem here and it’s obvious. Why on earth would an atheist be so interested in the power of a God that, according to them, does not exist? Good question. The real deal is that, try as an atheist might, there’s just no escaping God talk. And if one takes up philosophy, then God talk is inevitable. What’s worse is that, as an ordained philosopher, I feel that it is my imperative to have an opinion about everything — even about things I claim do not exist. Aquinas wrote that God’s omnipotence meant that God can do all things that are possible. But then, what does “what is possible” mean? What is possible is certainly different from something that is unlimited. Saying that I have a possible power is not the same as saying that I have an unlimited power ( at least at first glance it appears to be the case). So I read on: According to Aquinas, God being able to do what is possible means that, so long as there is no contradiction, God can perform an act. For example, God, after watching a little PBS, may decide that he wants to create a creature that is simultaneously dead and alive. Well, we know that a thing cannot be both alive and dead — that’s a contradiction. Once God has given the being life, he cannot make it dead at the same time. He’s perfectly free to give the thing life, and then kill it, but he cannot do both simultaneously. Ok, so far it’s making sense, but there’s something that still is bugging me. Let’s get back to definitions. Omnipotence is defined as “unlimited power”. So, I ask, if one definition of omnipotence contains the idea of unlimitedness, then how does that jive with Aquinas’ notion that God can do all things that are possible?When we say “possible”, what are was actually saying? Are we implying, when we use the word possible, that God’s powers are not complete? Are we saying that there are things that God cannot do? This question, whether God’s powers are limited, started me thinking about the paradox of the stone. Tell me if you’ve heard this one before: Someone, obviously begging for a slap or two, decides to throw out “Can God create a rock so heavy that he cannot lift it?”. This question, of course, is a question of God’s omnipotence. The gist of the thing is that we are to ask if there is some quality of God that dispermits him from creating such a rock. If we answer yes, we are saying that God is somehow lacking in (total) omnipotence. If there is one thing that God cannot do, then God is not all-powerful. Stranger than that, a yes means that, if God possesses the ability to limit his own powers. But somehow this seems counterintuitive. God is all-powerful, yet he is able to will himself the inability to lift a rock. When we talk about God’s omnipotence, we are talking about God’s qualities, that is, what makes God GOD. God, we’re told, is omnipotent, omnipresent, and really good (Only God and Mary Poppins are practically perfect in every way). God’s perfections are all or nothing. If his qualities are deficient in any way, he is not God ( well, not a perfect God. He may still be “god”). This was all starting to sound strangely familiar. It began to remind me of —The Problem Of Evil. The Problem of evil, if you haven’t heard of it, goes a little like this: there exists an all-powerful, perfectly good being (God). An all-powerful, perfectly good being would prevent evil (assuming that it would do so if it could). But, there is evil. Therefore, no all-powerful, perfectly good being exists, or at least we have reason to be skeptical that one does exist. This power of God quandary is of the sort similar to the paradox of the rock. The question once again is are there acts that God cannot do? (The situation is worse with the problem of evil. Not only are we asking if God permits evil, we might find ourselves asking if God performs evil). And once again, if we answer yes, we are not only left to question God’s omnipotence, but we question God’s all-goodness as well. Barring some reason that we do not know (e.g. God permits evil in order to accomplish some greater good), why would God permit or commit evil? The sunny side of this one is that no matter how many times we ask, no matter how many arguments we construct, we’ll never answer the question! But, unlike the paradox of the rock, the problem of evil is considered a real pantybuncher of a philosophical question. It shakes the soul of man. This seems to be the view that everyone believes. And that’s fine, if it works for you. But these “problems” don’t work me up to the hurl-myself-out-of-a-window-because-my-world-is-crashing level that they seem to do to everyone else. The God, if I believed in one, that I’d want to believe in is indeed AWESOME, which means that he would inspire awe. I don’t know about most people, but when I think awesome, I want to see something that completely floors me, somethng that I won’t ( and won’t want to) see everyday. The God that I’d like to believe in literally can do anything. But, wait a minute. What do I mean by “anything”? I mean just that. Not just what is possible, but what is conceivable. And since God’s knowledge is infinite, he can conceive of a great deal more than my puny brain can ever manage to cook up. My God can do what is impossible. Now, this is just my opinion (like none of what else I wrote hasn’t been?!?) but, I feel totally at ease with a God that creates rocks that he cannot lift, and performs the occasional evil deed or two. Not because he has to ( I totally reject the idea that God has to obey the laws of physics and such. The question there, then, is if God has rules that he must abide by, then who imposes those rules on God? Are we to assume that there is a Supreme Supreme Being that is even more omnicompetent than God that rules over God’s rule over us?), but because he wants to. I know that every philosopher out there will object. They’ll say that there is no way that God can create round squares and reverse the laws of physics! But I ask, why can’t he? I’d like to think that he can. He can because he is God. I had once, or several times — I really can’t remember — asked if God is bound by the same laws that we are bound by. A good ten out of ten times, the answer is yes. The answer usually has to do with some explanation involving irregular worlds or worlds that aren’t actualizable. It’s all supposed to make some kind of intuitive sense that there are things that God can’t do. But for me it doesn’t. I understand that I, the human, cannot create four-sided triangles and be 5 feet tall and 6 feet tall at the same time. But that’s because I live in a physical universe that is governed by natural or physical laws that are constructed by God. But God, so far as I know, does not exist in the same world as I do ( that’s the heart of the problem of interaction, isn’t it?). There’s really no other reason to believe that, other than that it makes sense for me to think so, God has to adhere to the same laws of physics and such as humans. I think that God chooses to “obey” the laws of nature, not because he has to, but because God, like us, has the free will to keep to the rules (he created, by the way) or not. God can just as easily and arbitrarily create a world where ingesting Clorox won’t kill you and where flowerpots fall out of windows and rise up towards the heavens. But God doesn’t. And if anyone asks me why I think this is so I will tell them this: God chooses to keep the world constant because he loves us. He knows, having designed us so, that humans would be disturbed ( putting it mildly) if he created a chaotic or “massively irregular” world. It’s not that God cannot do certain things or that there are worlds that God cannot actualize. Just like I choose to write this particular blog posting, God (totally knowing that he could do otherwise) decided that this world was the best for his creation. Thank God he’s consistent. *And may I add this personal note: I do not have a problem with possible worlds scenerios concerning everyday metaphysical of epistemological claims or quetions. For instance, I’m not put off to imagining or thinking about Matrix -like scenerios or the brain in a vat as a means of learning about the extent of our knowledge or the nature of our existence. However, I am adverse to speculation about the powers and/or intentions of a being that possesses a nature that I cannot comprehend. In short, I usually don’t mind talk of possible worlds. Hell, I’m a Star Trek fan — but I question the usefulness of such inquiries when it comes to God.

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