The Weakness of God and Sin: A Theological Sketch

In my recent podcast with Luke Norsworthy we were discussing the weakness of God--that God is love rather than a coercive force in the world--and how that relates to spiritual warfare.

The point I made in the podcast and in the series of posts where I wrestled with these questions (see the "On Weakness and Warfare" series on the sidebar) is that if the power of God is "weakness"--the cruciform love of Jesus on the cross--then love is always "in a battle" with the forces antithetical to love in the world. Love has to struggle to assert and insert itself. That is, since love doesn't control the world with coercive, top-down power love is always intruding and inserting itself from below. Spiritual warfare in this view is guerrilla warfare, the tactical interruption of the world with love.

As St. John of the Cross said, "Where there is no love, put love." That is spiritual warfare, putting love where there is no love.

But back to the podcast. My description of spiritual warfare is all well and good, but I struggled with the origins of sin and evil in my "On Weakness and Warfare" series and that issue came up again briefly in the podcast. Where does evil come from? Especially if God is weakness?

Because as Luke mentioned very briefly in the podcast, reflections along these lines can tend toward dualism. That is, if you start to take evil as a "given," as the background into which love must insert itself, that "givenness" can drift toward "pre-existent" or "co-existent" with the good. Which is dualism. Good and bad, side-by-side for eternity.

One way to deal with the origins of evil, and this is where Greg Boyd came up in the podcast (see his book God at War), is to posit free will. Free will introduces sin and evil into creation.

That has been a classic move in these discussions, but I come at the issue a bit differently given my starting point with the "weakness of God."

So, how do I understand the origins of sin and evil given my emphasis upon the weakness of God?

To start, and taking a cue from theologians like Jürgen Moltmann, we don't posit a creation ex nihilo with a big flashy display of power. What we posit, rather, is a divine withdrawal. God withdraws to make room and space for creation.

Consequently, creation is characterized, to a large extent, by God's absence.

So that is Act One, divine withdrawal making room for creation.

Act Two is God's re-entry into creation, God's movement back toward creation. This is the Spirit hovering over the formlessness left behind in the wake of God's withdrawal. God's re-entry is characterized by the insertion of order, beauty and goodness into the chaos. Creation, as described in the first lines of Genesis, is the Spirit of God (re)introducing order and goodness. That is the primal signature of God's working in the world, the ordering of chaos and making it good.

God's action in the world is as that nurturing, nourishing and loving force that brings goodness out of the chaos. God is that nurturing, nourishing and loving force that is present at all times and all places, ever attempting to enter more fully into creation so that the Spirit of God can indwell and fill all of creation.

Thus the drama of the biblical story, the constant movement of God toward us. The movement to bring the "Kingdom of God" to earth.

Importantly, God doesn't re-enter creation or bring the Kingdom to earth forcibly and coercively. God re-enters creation and brings the Kingdom through weakness. God enters the world through cruciformity, through the love Jesus displayed on the cross. God re-enters the world from the bottom up, in the midst of the least of these.

Sin enters the world when we fail to trust God, fail to trust that love is the "the grain of universe" and that those carrying crosses move with that grain. Sin rips the loving fabric of shalom. Sin is violence, in all its various guises.
[Since writing this post I read something from Robert Jenson that gives a different spin on all this.

Specifically, what God creates is history. What God creates is a Story. And in this Story Love alone is pre-existent. Sin and evil enter the Story as a falling away from Love, away from the primordial condition. Thus, what runs beneath the Story/Creation isn't conflict--a war between good and evil--but Love. Love, to use a musical metaphor, is the Cantus Firmus of Creation. Sin and evil come into existence when play dissonant notes, when we "fall away" from the Melody of Love. Behaviorally, the life of Jesus functions as our "tuning fork," the way we locate the right notes in finding our way back to the Cantus Firmus. Salvation, then, is returning to the harmony and melody of Creation. Salvation, to return to the literary metaphor, is narrating our stories back into Love's original plot line.]  
The vision here is less about agents with free will making choices than it is about the harm caused by the exercise of power and dominion over others and creation. The contrast is between actions that move with the grain of the cross versus actions that move against that grain, actions that rip the fabric of the Kingdom of God. Anxious about our own survival we do not trust God. We rebel against and reject cruciformity. We attempt to use force to violently secure our well-being.

The call of faith, then, begins with the call to repentance. We are called to enter the Kingdom, to trust that the grain of the universe is demonstrated, enacted and incarnated in Jesus, the image of the invisible God. The gospel proclamation--the Good News--is that the Kingdom of God--where God reigns and where God's Spirit has re-entered and re-filled creation--has been inaugurated in Jesus and in the midst of communities who celebrate him as Lord.

Eschatology is the vision of the Kingdom coming in its fullness, the goal and direction we are loving our way toward. Eschatology imagines that future where God's Spirit infuses all of creation bringing wholeness and shalom. Eschatology is the vision of God's Spirit filling the whole of creation as prefigured in God's Spirit filling the Temple. Eschatology is the Kingdom having come upon earth as it is in heaven, the completion of Act Two.

Judgment is the future vision of the Kingdom apocalyptically intruding upon the present moment in the prophetic pronouncement of blessings and woes. Judgment is the moral verdict the future Kingdom pronounces upon the Now.

Pronouncement of blessing--"Blessed are the..."--names and makes salient those locations in the world where the Kingdom of God intrudes and is celebrated, even when it is as tiny as a mustard seed and is as small as cup of cold water.

Woe and pronouncements of damnation are prophetic judgments naming and making salient the forces of darkness in the world, the forces that are antithetical to love and valorize coercive violence and the domination of others and creation.

These three things remain, faith, hope and love.

Faith is covenantally trusting in God and in God's Kingdom as inaugurated in Jesus. Faith is covenantally trusting that God is love and that cruciform love is indeed the grain of the universe.

Hope is the fully imagined future of the Kingdom of God, the vision we are journeying toward, the vision that guides, orients, directs and judges us.

Love is walking as Jesus walked, taking up the cross and following the Lamb wherever he goes.

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10 thoughts on “The Weakness of God and Sin: A Theological Sketch”

  1. I'd like to give a shout out to my pastor Jonathan Storment for the beautiful metaphor of the Cantus Firmus of creation. If I recall it's a metaphor Jonathan got from Dietrich Bonhoeffer. From Bonhoeffer's Letters and Papers:

    There is always the danger in all strong, erotic love that one may love what I might call the polyphony of life. What I mean is that God wants us to love him eternally with our whole hearts – not in such a way as to injure or weaken our earthly love, but to provide a kind of cantus firmus to which the other melodies of life provide the counterpoint…

    Only a polyphony of this kind can give life a wholeness and at the same time assure us that nothing calamitous can happen as long as the cantus firmus is kept going.

  2. Thank you, Richard. A few (what I hope are) constructive points:

    (1) I too have always found Moltmann's deployment of the Jewish Kabbalistic doctrine of God's "self-limitation" (zimsum) richly suggestive. But it's important to observe that it is a development, not a denial, of the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo, which remains theologically essential. God does not create from chaos or intractable material (nor is God's act of creation labour-intensive -- it is by the Word, it is "effortless"). Rather God in God's self-withdrawal posits the nihil out of which God creates. The really interesting move that Moltmann makes is to associate the nihil "in which God creates his creation" with "God-forsakenness, hell, absolute death", thus coupling creation with redemption, with the cross, indeed with the cross of the Eternal Son: "In this sense," he writes, "God's self-humiliation does not begin merely with creation, inasmuch as God commits himself to this world: it begins beforehand, and is the presupposition that makes creation possible." (Correctly, creation is read in the light of redemption, not the other way round.) So I think the language of God's "re-entry" into creation is unhelpful (there is no prequel), as is the language of God's "insertion" of order and beauty into chaos (they are part of the grammar of creation from the get-go).

    (2) By all means we must speak, in a sense, of God's "absence" in creation, but never simply full-stop, because we must also insist that God is immanent in creation, doing his preserving, guiding, redeeming thing in, with, and under creation.

    (3) We must be careful of over-anthropologising creation -- and redemption. And we must remember that we are doing all our theology after Darwin. In the traditional terms of theodicists, you address the issue of "moral evil" (and sin) but you pass over the issue of "natural evil". Personally, I do not believe in a literal, historical fall, but even the fall metaphorically (but no less seriously!) understood cannot account for all the suffering intrinsic to the evolutionary process across the aeons of time. However, I also think that to go looking for the origins of evil, let alone for an explanation of the origins of evil, is both a futile and an ill-conceived theological wild goose chase. The fundamental question, which you nicely and cogently address, is how God deals with the predicament of fallen creation (from the third rock from the sun to the most distant galaxies) -- yes, it's the the slain lamb eschatologically issuing in, via missio Dei, Isaiah's vision of lambs and lions playing baseball in New Jerusalem Stadium.

  3. What the evil view as weakness, is in reality power, for the concept of "power" is different between the evil and good: "Dominion from evil and falsity is altogether contrary to dominion from good and truth. Dominion from evil and falsity is to wish to make all slaves; dominion from good and truth is to wish to make all free. Dominion from evil and falsity is to destroy all; but dominion from good and truth is to save all. From which it is evident that dominion from evil and falsity is of the devil, but that dominion from good and truth is the Lord's. That the two kinds of dominion are altogether contrary may be evident from the Lord's words in Matthew xii. 24-30; also from His saying that no one can serve two masters (Matt. vi. 24; Luke xvi. 13)." (Swedenborg, Heavenly Arcana, n. 1749.3) True power is to resist evil from truth, and all truth has the Divine as its origin.

  4. Kim,
    I think that a “Progressive Creationist” model of origins (minus Polygenism- Ha!) goes a long way to offer an explanation to some of the conundrums brought up in your third point. It does not securely answer the issue of the “Origin of Evil”, but at least potentially compartmentalizes it into a contextual flow that ameliorates the need to explicate death and decay in a "Pre-Fall" world.

  5. Richard, so much of what you write here resonates with Orthodoxy :)

    I would agree with Kim's first 2 points. As to the third, what makes sense to me is that somehow "the suffering intrinsic to the evolutionary process across the aeons of time" is also somehow taken up into the Cross - or Christ on the Cross was somehow already there - or maybe both at once? This is something expressed in Orthodox thought, without necessarily nailing down the "how" of it other than connected to the weakness of God as love. Anyway, that must also be seen in the light of redemption, and that mitigates the over-anthropologizing.


  6. I am no theologian by any means, but I do so enjoy reading and thinking, keeping a couple of books going, along with the Bible, in my early morning hours before heading off to perform that which pays my bills. And I certainly enjoy exploring the different veins of theology that I find on Richard's blog.

    Matthew Fox in his Creation Spirituality points out that imperfection is an integral part of reality. After all, where there is perfection there is no need for love. From this I see evil as being imperfection that loses its legitimacy and life as it seeks to be autonomous from love, severed from its source of life. And as love grows when it is fed, imperfection rots and decays when it is not.

    Simple, I know. But, not shallow, I hope.

  7. Are we being bound to the thought that Elohim created "ex nihilo?" I proffer the following:

    “To summarize, I believe that Creatio ex nihilo reaffirms the tendency for (Christian)
    communities to organize around authoritative power, thus re-inscribing divine sanction of colonial activity. It also reaffirms God as a personal being, losing a feminist theological insight of God as a verb. Creatio ex nihilo effectively reduces conversation between Christianity and some non-Christian faith traditions around creation narratives and their mythic embodiment of core values and divine-world relations.”
    “Against Creation Ex Nihilo: a Whiteheadian, Feminist and Pluralist Perspective”
    Monica A. Coleman
    Open and Relational Theologies Consultation
    American Academy of Religion Annual Meeting. San Francisco, CA
    November 20, 2011

    The following problems with creation ex nihilo are from Thomas Jay Oord at the listed website;
    4. Creation at an instant problem: We have no evidence in the history of the universe after the big bang that entities can emerge instantaneously from absolute nothingness. Out of nothing comes nothing (ex nihil, nihil fit).
    5. Solitary power problem: Creatio ex nihilo assumes that a powerful God once acted alone. But power is a social concept only meaningful in relation to others.
    8. Empire Problem: The kind of divine power implied in creatio ex nihilo supports a theology of empire, which is based upon unilateral force and control of others.

    From this blog…
    Catherine Keller’s exquisitely written Face of the Deep: Toward a Theology of Becoming (2003). The book is a meditation on the first few verses of Genesis, specifically the meaning of the phrase “tohu vabohu” in the second verse. Keller disputes long established interpretations by some Church fathers who claimed that these verses depict an omnipotent God’s free creation of the universe from absolutely nothing. Creatio ex nihilo. She argues that there is no biblical basis for the ex nihilo doctrine, that Genesis in fact describes a far messier, polytonal, and co-creative event. Creatio Cooperationis.

    I suggest that these and additional scholars do not buy into this traditional model of made from nothing and that it should be examined.

  8. I just watched Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (the new one that just came out) and it asks the viewer to accept some pretty profound ideas about good and evil, and strength and weakness. I don't know if I want to accept some of the message but it does a good job of trying to separate violence and strength. Anyhow, if you get the time it asks some good questions. It has a garden of eden, discovery of evil, casting out etc storyline.

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