God's Omnipotence: Part 6, Beyond a Marvel Imagination of Power

My apologies if the pace of this series is driving you crazy. We're six posts in and I've yet to share Katherine Sonderegger's positive proposal in her Systematic Theology: The Doctrine of God about how to think about God's omnipotence. We're getting close, but I want to take one more post to illustrate how we need to (not) think about God's power if we take Thomas Aquinas seriously.

Let's revisit the lessons we learned in the last post from Aquinas.

First, God's power is like our power, but it's also radically unlike our notions of power. And Sonderegger suggests that our problems with God's omnipotence stem from the fact that we get too literal in thinking and talking about God's power.

Critically, as noted in the last post, God's power isn't locatable among created powers and causes. God's power isn't alongside or in competition with the powers and causes we find in creation. The Thomistic theologian Herbert McCabe puts the situation provocatively by saying, "God makes no difference to the universe." By this McCabe means that God's power or causality doesn't "add" anything to the universe. God's power isn't an "additional" power we can appeal to that might "insert" itself into creation, nudging it this way or that. Perhaps the easiest way to think about this is to say that God is the Source of power, rather than a power.  

So, when we speak of God being "all powerful" we should not think of God being the Biggest Power within the universe. God isn't a superpower.

If I could wade into some nerdy waters, an illustration from the Marvel comic book universe might be helpful here.

There's a hierarchy of powers in the Marvel universe. Some superheros have significant but local powers. Like Spider-Man. Spider-Man is powerful, but he can't, for example, destroy a planet or manipulate space and time. Spider-Man's power isn't cosmic, it's a local power (which is why he's your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man). But above Spider-Man in the Marvel universe there are powers that are cosmic in scope. There are agents that have the power to manipulate the fabric of reality itself. Think of Thanos with all the Infinity Stones: a snap of his fingers and reality itself can be changed. And in the Marvel universe there are agents even stronger than Thanos with the Infinity Gauntlet: The Living Tribunal, the Beyonder, and the greatest power of all in the Marvel canon, the One-Above-All.

What we see displayed in the Marvel universe is the human imagination trying to imagine greater and greater powers until we reach an ultimate power, an all-powerful being, an omnipotent being. And yet, according to Thomas Aquinas, this vision of an all-powerful being is only like God analogically. At the end of the day, God is nothing like Thanos with the Infinity Stones or the One-Above-All.

To revisit the question from the end of the last post, perhaps our problems with God's power stems from the fact that our imaginations about power and what being "all-powerful" would look like are too much like what we see in Marvel comics. We pray to God as if God is like Thanos with the Infinity Stones, asking God to snap his fingers to grant our requests. And that imagination--where we push the analogy of human power too far in talking about God--creates all the puzzles we have with God's power. Why, we ask, does God-as-Thanos snap or not snap His fingers for us?

I expect most of us would recoil at the suggestion that prayer is fundamentally like asking Thanos to snap his fingers. And yet, isn't this exactly the imagination at work behind every single problem we have with God's power? From petitionary prayer to miracles to theodicy to every question we have about God's influence and activity in our lives?

But what if God's power is nothing like Thanos snapping his fingers?

In fact, following Aquinas, we do know that God is nothing like Thanos snapping his fingers. So we should reject any issue or question about God's power--from prayer, to miracles to theodicy--that rests upon that imagination and assumption.

But if that's the case, if the Thanos analogy is breaking down for us, keeping us snarled in theological debates, what sort of analogy might help us better think about God's power? That's what Sonderegger is hunting for, an analogy for God's power that allows us to worship and praise God for being "all powerful," but one that avoids the Marvel imagination of power.

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