Musings on Openness Theology, Part 3: Models of Sovereignty at Church

John Sanders takes a slightly different approach to openness theology in his book A God Who Risks: A Theology of Providence. Sanders tries to de-emphasize the focus on foreknowledge and the future. He focuses rather on issues of sovereignty and the kind of world God has chosen to create.

Specifically, Sanders contrasts two views. First, there is Specific Sovereignty (SS). In SS God is micro-managing the world. God is willing, guiding, and directing "the specifics" of life. Every little event is the will of God. Sanders calls this the "no risk" view of God. With SS the universe evolves exactly as God has planned. With there being no wiggle-room in the world--no deviation, no surprises for God--God risks nothing in creating this world.

Although the SS (no risk) world preserves a view of God's transcendent perfection and power the no risk view has some problems. Theodicy comes to mind. If every event is decreed by God then, well, some events don't seem to fit. God willed the Holocaust? Children with cancer? School shootings? Rape?

Further, the no risk world sucks the relationality out of the cosmos. Do we have any real choice in this world? Would prayer mean anything in this world?

The no risk world also complicates issues of salvation. If only some people are going to heaven and all things are being willed/directed by God why isn't God willing for the salvation of all? Why is he arbitrarily picking an elect few?

In contrast to the SS model, Sanders sets out the General Sovereignty (GS) model where God is macro-managing the world. That is, God's activity is the world is at a larger scale. God is working out his purposes in a world where he has turned over much of the control to humanity. God has, to a a degree, withdrawn from the world to allow humans scope. God does this to create spontaneous relationships.

In this GS world God is taking risks. With humans driving the car much of the time God is responding to the consequences of our individual and collective choices. Obviously, God's biggest risk in creating this world is allowing human sin, the rejection of God, to become possible.

The GS world where God takes risks seems to do a better job than SS with the issues we noted above. God didn't cause the Holocaust. Humans did. God hated that the Holocaust happened. Further, God didn't abandon us to those choices. He was there, in the Holocaust, working out his purposes while preserving the relational aspects of the world he created. Also, in the GS model God truly does seek the salvation of all humanity. He's not picking out the elect. Salvation is reciprocal with humanity left with the choice to respond to God.

In my next post I want to start picking apart the openness theology position. Not to reject it but to try to reconfigure it. But before turning to that task I want to pause and reflect on how people react to the SS and GS models.

Curiously, the SS and GS models have very different effects on believers. And I'm fascinated by this.

Let's start with SS, where every event has been decreed by God. Personally, I'm appalled by this view. Again, the theodicy issues just seem too problematic for me. And yet, I've seen some very good people, friends of mine, grab onto this view as a theodicy.

For instance, a family at our church, friends of ours, have a child who is afflicted by cancer. In a SS world God willed for this child to have cancer. Again, I can't go there. But this family, the people living daily in the face of this situation, are very strong SS people. They hold onto the view that God must have a reason, a purpose for this illness. God has a plan for all this.

And this perspective gives them hope and courage. It has allowed them to get up every morning and care for their child and sit through hours upon hours of doctor consultations and surgeries. That God has a plan is what gives them strength and hope.

Theologically, I have some doubts about all this. But I keep my mouth shut. Their faith and courage humbles me. And my academic quibbles about models of God's sovereignty are obscene in their presence.

By contrast, there are parents in similar circumstances who simply must reject the SS model in the face of their child's illness. If God willed for this to happen then God is a monster.

The point is, in my experience, in the midst of horrific suffering different kinds of people are either attracted to or repelled by specific sovereignty. People tend to take one of two roads in the face of suffering and it manifests in diametrically opposed ways. Which is both curious and communally difficult. Two families in pain. One claiming it was God's plan and the other horrified at that same claim. Both in the same communal space. Which is bound to create confusion and pastoral challenges.

It really is quite a pickle. In any given church, emotionally raw people are deploying diametrically opposed models of God that each finds theologically and psychologically repulsive.

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9 thoughts on “Musings on Openness Theology, Part 3: Models of Sovereignty at Church”

  1. Sometimes I think this is a personality issue. If you can't stomach chaos then you choose the SS model, but if you can you go with the GS model or something similar. People will go to great lengths to justify things they don't understand. For instance, take this idea I encountered about a month ago.

    Not only did G-d know the Holocaust was going to happen, he allowed it to happen so that the other peoples of the world would rise up to give Israel back to the Jews.

    I guess if you take the SS model, these are the kinds of rationalizations you have to make.

  2. "Further, God didn't abandon us to those choices. He was there, in the Holocaust, working out his purposes while preserving the relational aspects of the world he created."

    I would like you to expand upon that. The question that comes to me is if we hold that God is acting coercively in our world then why didn't God stop it. Of course, the statement above of yours could just as well be plucked out of others musings on panentheism which generally reject the coercive (or supernatural) model.

  3. Steven,
    I tend to think a lot of theology is a form of coping and we all tend to cope in differnt ways.

    Actually, I'd like to NOT elaborate on that! That sentence is coming from me "as if" I was subscribing to GS (i.e., I was summarizing Sanders and not giving my own view).

    I, personally, don't have a good answer for the Holocaust. My only theodicy is the cross, God's solidarity with the victims. Beyond that, I just don't know.

  4. OK, I guess I'll have to hunt down Sanders.

    In regards to the whole GS vs SS as a way of psychological coping. Do you think that often the closeness of the 'evil' that is occurring sways people one way or the other? For example, SS seems good for when my kid is dying of cancer, but when I put on my bible reading glasses I'm cool with God willing bad things.

  5. "my academic quibbles about models of God's sovereignty are obscene in their presence."

    Very true. I'm therefore going to assume they're not reading your blog.

    I'm not certain that the theology held by these parents is the Specific Sovereignty you describe earlier in your post. Instead, I suspect that these people have a zoroastrian view like the one you've mentioned in previous post, or, actually, a General Sovereignty view.

    The distinction lies in whether these parents think God is *causing* the illness or *allowing* some other force (satan or chance) to cause the illness. If they think God is intentionally causing the illness to get some good end, then sure, they're SS. But if God is merely allowing the evil and planning to work some good end out of it, then they would seem to be GS.

    As for myself, I find both SS and GS to be untenable ways of explaning providence. SS protects the idea of God's absolute control at the expense of God's goodness. GS sacrifices the idea of God's absolute conrol, but as far as I can tell does very little to salvage God's goodness. An all-powerful God who allows innocent people to be brutalized is just as evil as the God who does it herself.

    (Hm. I just realized that GS may parallel the Kitty Genovese situation in some ways - can people take cues for action off of God? If we think God is content to allow people to suffer, might we tend to do the same? I also realized that theodicy-wise, if you're a weak volitional type, humans may be considered just another force of nature, collapsing the distinction between personal and natural evil. Yeeks. Sorry for the novel.)

  6. Connor,
    Thinking here about your comment about "closeness" to evil and our models of sovereignty...

    I think you are correct about that. Another thing that might go into all this is something I read yesterday in Charles Taylor's new book The Secular Age. Taylor says that in some people the theodic burden grows so large that they need to rage against something, he called it the "relief of rebellion." It seems that some people, and I am one of them, need to rage in the face of evil and suffering. Not everyone, it seems, has this need. Thus, your "theodic rage-proneness" (which seems partly experiential and partly a personality thing) seems to dictate how people address, emotionally and theologically, the problems of theodicy.

    As I think about it, you may have a point about the dualistic model. That is, people feel "attacked" by satan but also claim that the trial/struggle/battle they are in can be turned by God into goodness. Which is, as you say, less SS than GS.

    A weak volitional take is what I'm about to take up in my next posts. Here's the task I set for myself: Can you have an openness theology if you reject free will? I saw your comment about randomness on the prior post and that will be a big conversation point.

  7. I certainly agree that one's theological preference turns, to a considerable extent, on personality type. I'm comfortable with a great deal of uncertainty and indeterminacy. So GS commends itself to me.

    My first thought upon reading your post is that it seems almost a necessary postulate for any Christian who accepts evolution as a fact. If there is a God at all, doesn't evolution prove that God is no micromanager?

    That God has a plan is what gives them strength and hope. Theologically, I have some doubts about all this. But I keep my mouth shut.

    Good decision! Keeping one's mouth shut is an important pastoral skill. Job's "comforters" are a great example of people talking when they oughtn't.

    Emerging From Babel

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