On Warfare and Weakness: Part 5, The Weakness of God

The goal of this series is to articulate a theology for progressive Christianity that is energetic and has popular appeal. To this point I've made two big observations.

First, I believe the energy and appeal for a progressive Christian vision comes when we recover a warfare theology, a theology of revolt grounded in the biblical witness. People want a real fight and a warfare theology gives them that.

Second, as I argued in the last post a warfare theology presupposes a weak God, presupposes limitations on God's power and control in the world.

This is the interesting connection--warfare and weakness--between books like Greg Boyd's God at War and John Caputo's The Weakness of God. It's a connection not many have noticed because readers have tended to focus on Boyd's answers rather than upon the question he's trying to answer. Specifically, a warfare theology presupposes that evil is renegade, outside of God's control. This view extracts God from the evil in the world, placing evil outside of God's sphere of influence. When this happens evil is no longer a theological puzzle ("Why does God allow bad things to happen to good people?), but a force to be opposed.

To get to this point you need to let limits on God's power in the world. Boyd does this by appealing to free will. For a variety of reasons I don't think that works, but I agree with the goal of the free will appeal: for a warfare theology to work you need a weaker God.

And it's here where we can now turn to John Caputo's book The Weakness of God.

The crux of what I want to argue in this post is this: If we need a weaker God to extract God from evil and create a warfare theology, why speculate indirectly about the volitional capacities of angelic beings (e.g., that demons have free will) when we can posit the weakness of God more directly?

To be sure, conservative Christians won't want to go in this direction--toward the weakness of God--but we don't care about conservatives right now. We are sketching out a progressive theological vision. And many progressive and liberal Christians are already on board with visions like Caputo's in The Weakness of God. So I don't need to convince them of this view. All I need to do is show the connection between the weakness of God and the warfare worldview as described in Boyd's God at War.

Because, let's be honest, Caputo's The Weakness of God doesn't have broad popular appeal. It's too steeped in post-modern deconstruction and Continental philosophy to energize a congregation of Christians. Basically, if you're talking about Derrida or Lacan you're screwed, pastorally speaking. Again, people want a real fight. They don't want a lot of post-modern philosophication.

And so that I might practice what I preach, let's not start with Caputo in talking about the weakness of God. Let's start with the bible.

The phrase "the weakness of God" comes from 1 Corinthians:
1 Corinthians 1.18-25
For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written: “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise; the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.”

Where is the wise person? Where is the teacher of the law? Where is the philosopher of this age?

Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.

For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.
The weakness of God is associated here with the cross of Jesus. The cross is weakness and foolishness in the eyes of the world, but it is the power and wisdom of God. Paul immediately goes on in the next verses (vv. 26-28) to show how the weakness of God is at work among the Corinthian Christians:
Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are. 
The power of God is here associated with things that are foolish, weak, lowly and despised. This is the power/weakness of God in the world, the power manifested on the cross.

In short, the power of God in the world is the power of the cross. The power of weakness, powerlessness, and lowliness.

The power/weakness of God in the world is kenosis, self-emptying donation for others:
Philippians 2.5-8
In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:

Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God
something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!
The power/weakness of God is manifest in "being made nothing" in the world. The power/weakness of God is found in failure, loss, and humiliation.

And this power/weakness isn't just about theology. It's about the ethics of the Kingdom, how Christians are to practice the powerlessness and weakness of God:
Mark 10.42-45
Jesus called them together and said:

“You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you.

Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” 
The power/weakness of God is being the last and the least, the servant and slave of all. In Luke 22, the parallel to Mark 10, Jesus adds the stunning phrase:
"I am among you as the one who serves."
God exists among us "as the one who serves." Servanthood is the power of God. Want to see God? Look for a servant. There you will find God living amongst us. Phrased in the language of 1 John, the power/weakness of God in the world is found in love:
1 John 4.7-8, 11-12
Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love...Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us. 
Love is the power/weakness of God in the world. If you love you have been "born of God." If you love you "know God." If you love God "lives in" you.

You add all that up and what you have is a radically different view of God's power. God does not exercise top-down power and control from on high. God doesn't "lord over" the world. The power of God works in the opposite direction, from the bottom-up. God's power is the power of the cross, the power of weakness and powerlessness, the power of loving servanthood and self-giving. This is why we must become like little children--become weak, lowly and despised as those described in 1 Corinthians--if we are to enter the Kingdom of God, a Kingdom not characterized by top-down power but by being the one in the "last place." And when we step into this loving and powerless way of living we become born of God, we come to know God, and God comes to live in us. As Henri Nouwen has written,
Surrounded by so much power, it is very difficult to avoid surrendering to the temptation to seek power like everyone else. But the mystery of our ministry is that we are called to serve not with our power but with our powerlessness. It is through powerlessness that we can enter into solidarity with our fellow human beings, form a community with the weak, and thus reveal the healing, guiding, and sustaining mercy of God...As followers of Christ, we are sent into the world naked, vulnerable, and weak, and thus we can reach our fellow human beings in their pain and agony and reveal to them the power of God's love and empower them with the power of God's Spirit.
Most progressive Christians, I imagine, are already on board with this view of God, a view of God's power/weakness that I think is wonderfully summarized by Dietrich Bonhoeffer:
God lets himself be pushed out of the world onto the cross. He is weak and powerless in the world, and that is precisely the way, the only way, in which he is with us and helps us. Matt. 8:17 makes it quite clear that Christ helps us, not by virtue of his omnipotence, but by virtue of his weakness and suffering.
Okay, so far, so good. All of this material from the bible is well-trodden territory, and while some of my formulations above might be too strong for some conservatives most of these texts and the takeaway points I've made are generally agreed upon by both progressives and conservatives.

So what's the rub? The rub is this. As argued by theologians like Caputo in The Weakness of God the texts above and the interpretations I draw from them are all that is to be said about the power of God in the world. God's power is weakness. Straight up. There is no Big Power sitting behind the weakness of the cross backing it up with a reservoir of force. The weakness of God exhausts the meaning of what it means to say God is "powerful." As Caputo writes,
God is the source of good and its warrant. That is the stamp or the seal that God puts on creation; that is God's covenant with us. But God is not the power supply for everything that happens.
At this point, most conservatives will balk. That is, while they make accept, on one level, the cross of Jesus and the path of servanthood, they don't think the power of God is limited to those things. Behind the cross, they would contend, is power and awesome force, a power and force that can push people around, can push the entire cosmos around, can with the snap of a finger obliterate anything and anyone. God is more than weakness, God is power. Awesome power.

But in his book The Weakness of God Caputo rejects all that. Beyond the cross there isn't a reservoir of awesome force. The power of God just is the weakness of the cross. The cross exhausts what we mean by "the power of God," with no remainder. As Bonhoeffer says, God is weak and powerless in the world, and that is precisely the way, the only way, in which God is with us and helps us. Key those words, "the only way." In this view there is no other power but powerlessness. No other form of control than weakness. And this is the only way. There is no Big Stick, no Big Power Switch sitting in reserve. The weakness of the cross is the only way God rules the world. The. Only. Way.

Another way to say this is to echo a church father (I can't remember who right now) who said, "There is no force in God."

Some from Caputo on these topics:
The strong point about weak theology is that it is a theology of the cross...The divinity is rather that [Christ's] very death and humiliation rise up in protest against the world, rise up above power. Under power, I include both Roman power and a God of power who has the power to intervene, as if God is like a hurricane who could descend on the scene and send the Roman soldiers hurtling through the air were he of such a mind. The perverse core of Christianity lies in being a weak force. The weak force of God is embodied in the broken body on the cross...

The power of God is not pagan violence, brute power, vulgar magic; it is the power of powerlessness, the power of the call, the power of protest that rises up from innocent suffering and calls out against it, the power that says no to unjust suffering, and finally the power to suffer-with (sym-pathos) innocent suffering, which is perhaps the central Christian symbol.
The effect of situating God on the side of vulnerability and unjust suffering is not, of course, to glorify suffering and misery, but to prophetically protest it, to give divine depth and meaning to resistance to unjust suffering, to attach the coefficient of divine resistance to unjust suffering...The call, the cry, the plaint that rises up from the cross is a great divine "no" to injustice, an infinite lamentation over unjust suffering and innocent victims. God is with Jesus on the cross, and in standing with Jesus rather than with the imperial power of Rome, God stands with an innocent persecuted for calling the powers that be to task. The name of God is the name of a divine "no" to persecution, violence, and victimization...

On this scheme...the transcendence of "God" does not mean God towers above being as a hyper-being. Rather, God pitches his tent among beings by identifying with everything the world casts out and leaves behind...God withdraws from the world's order of presence, prestige, and sovereignty in order to settle into those pockets of protest and contradiction to the world. God belongs to the air, to the call, to the spirit that inspires and aspires, that breathes justice. God settles into the recesses formed in the world by the little ones, the nothings and nobodies of the world.
To be clear, before going on, I don't think every progressive Christian has worked out the logic of the cross to this sort of conclusion. Nor do I think every progressive Christian would agree with pushing the logic of the cross to Caputo's conclusion.1

But I do think many progressive Christians already agree with this sort of conclusion or, at the very least, operate as if this conclusion were, in fact, the case. Progressive Christians tend to be highly skeptical about the use of power, even from the Deity. Also, given their general worries about robust metaphysical accounts, many progressive Christians don't make appeals to God's power, asking God to do this or that in the cosmos. Most progressive Christians see God in terms of solidarity and love. God is with us in love. And we are called to live as the Imago Dei, standing with each other in love, particularly with the weak and outcast. As Caputo writes,
God chose the "outsiders," the people deprived of power, wealth, education, high birth, high culture. Theirs is a "royalty" of outcasts, so that, from the point of view of the aion, the age or the world, the word kingdom is being used ironically, almost mockingly, to refer to these pockets of the despised that infect and infest the world. For this is a kingdom of the low-down and lowborn, the "excluded," the very people who are precisely the victims of the world's power.
In short, most progressive Christians are relating to God, thinking about God, and living as if the metaphysical account described above is the case. So all we are doing is making explicit what has been largely implicit within progressive Christianity.

And with that understanding in hand we can now circle back to the warfare theology articulated by Boyd in God at War.

Again, we've seen in Boyd how we need a weak God to go to war. That's the only way to extract God from complicity in evil. Evil has to be outside of God's control, an independent force or power outside of God's own. Boyd achieves this limitation of God's power with an appeal to the free will of angelic and human beings. But we've rejected this as an option (at least for many progressive Christians). But we aren't stuck because we have another way to get to the same conclusion: we can posit more directly the weakness of God.

Theologically, this gets us what Boyd was after--a weaker God--without positing 1) the existence of angelic beings and 2) that these beings have free will. 

In short, progressive Christians can get the warfare theology they want by simply making explicit their views regarding the weakness of God. This is the connection between God at War and The Weakness of God. As Boyd argues, a warfare theology assumes a plurality of forces in the world in combat with each other. A weak view of God assumes this plurality, that in the world there are a variety of forces often working at cross-purposes. Among these forces is the "weak force of God," the force of love. And insofar as love abides and "rules" then the Kingdom of God is instantiated. Christ is made "King" and "Lord."

And insofar as love is overthrown by force then the Kingdom of Satan holds sway.

Waging spiritual warfare, then, is using the tools of Jesus (love, servanthood, self-giving) to establish and expand the Kingdom of God in the face of competing, hostile and evil forces. Spiritual warfare is "binding the strong man" in order to inaugurate, on earth, the Kingdom of Heaven.


And yet, other questions remain as this view of the weakness of God challenges traditional views of God's power, particularly the displays of God's power at the start (Creation) and at the end (New Creation) of the biblical narrative. Those two events--creation and new creation--seem to involve a lot of power. How are we to think about those events in light of the weakness of God?

The theological detour continues. More to come.

Part 6

1. Because Caputo does go quite a bit beyond a theology of the cross. In The Weakness of God Caputo argues that the category of "being" doesn't apply to God. Caputo argues that God is an event rather than a being.

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3 thoughts on “On Warfare and Weakness: Part 5, The Weakness of God”

  1. Richard, you may lump the following questions in with eastbk's 4th comment, but I am also wondering about the idea of God truly being powerless. How do we understand Jesus' option to call upon the legion of angels? A bluff? And can one "self empty" if they are already at empty? If God is already at empty, can he empty himself further as the incarnation? Finally, this strong view of God's weakness helps progressives see life through a framework of spiritual warfare, but (and I may be missing this part) does it do what Boyd's framework does in giving some sort of answer to the "why" part of theodicy? Boyd's answer to "why" is free will and fallen angels. But can your take on Caputo provide any sort of equivalent? Is the equivalent that God is simply too self-emptied to control the chaos in creation?

  2. I've been reading a lot of Greggory of Nyssa, and this part of your post reminded me of this from him, where he looks at the Power of God and the apparant Weakness of Jesus:

    "But it would be quite in order for anyone who has followed the argument
    thus far to ask where is the power of the deity, where, in what has been
    said, is the incorruption of the divine power visible? In order that
    this too may become clear, let us explore the rest of the mystery, above
    all that area, where the power is mingled with love for humanity. To
    begin with, the ability of the all powerful nature to condescend to the
    lowliness of our condition is a surer instance of his power than his
    working of great and wonderful miracles. That something great and high
    should have been achieved by the divine power is perfectly natural and
    in accord with God. It would not surprise anyone to learn, for example,
    that the whole visible and invisible order of the universe owes its
    existence to the divine power, once the divine will had so decided...

    ....the condescension of the Word to the frailty of our nature
    displays the divine and excellent power of God more effectively than
    does the size of the heavens, the light of the stars, the ordering of
    everything and the omnipresent administration of all that exists. In a
    wonderful way, in the Incarnate Lord, what is lofty appears in what is
    lowly and appears there without sacrificing its loftiness."

    Meredith, Anthony (2012-10-12). Gregory of Nyssa (The Early Church Fathers) (p. 81). Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition.

  3. Not all progressives & liberal Christians will be in lockstep with one and other on the nature of power & the exercise of power. I consider myself liberal about more than a few things, mayhap the most salient being my rejection of the doctrines of Original Sin & Penal substitution. I see little difference between them and a Muslim honor killing for an honest mistake (the fall of humankind). I'm sure there are conservatives who will assure me a place of endless burning & torment at day's end for holding that view. Nonetheless, I cannot sign on to Caputo's thesis that evil continues in the world because of a kind of theoretical weakness on the part of the Almighty. I think that God's self restraint of His power better explains why evil is allowed to continue until He does away with it in the final end as written down by John the Revelator.

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