Recently, I have begun reading the book Immortal Diamond, newly published by Richard Rohr. It’s a great book, and I commend it to you. There are a number of passages already in the book that have gotten my attention, and one in particular. Rohr writes,
God is the Great Allower, despite all attempts of ego, culture, and even religion to prevent God from allowing. Show me where God does not allow. God lets women be raped and raped women conceive, God lets tyrants succeed, and God lets me make my own mistakes again and again. He does not enforce his own commandments. God’s total allowing of everything has in fact become humanity’s major complaint. Conservatives so want God to smite sinners that they find every natural disaster to be proof of just that, and then they invent some of their own smiting besides. Liberals reject God because God allows holocausts and torture and does not fit inside their seeming logic. If we were truly being honest, God is both a scandal and a supreme disappointment to most of us. We would prefer a God of domination and control to a God of allowing, as most official prayers make clear.
— Richard Rohr, Immortal Diamond, pp. 18-19
I was quite struck by this image of God as the Great Allower, an image that rings deeply true for me, for all the reasons that Rohr cites. And I am also struck by Rohr’s observation that this so flies in the face of who we really want God to be.
We have a tendency to want God to be a Supreme Being, the all-powerful One who can do whatever God wants to do in the world. We have a tendency, I think, to view God as something like a parent – only a Super Parent, much more powerful than our own parents. But when God does not live up to this Super Parent image, we react, as Rohr observes, by being scandalized or disappointed. We deal with this reaction by inventing opportunities to see God at work, punishing the wicked, or we decide there really is no God at all. Or, that God is uninterested in us and has long since left the world on its own. People can come up with some rather stunning feats of theological gymnastics to try to deal with their disappointment that God the Super Parent has not protected or helped or intervened in the way they imagine that he should.
All of this is why I find myself attracted to the language used by theologian James Alison with respect to God, whom he calls the “other Other.” He uses this term to emphasize how much God is different from ourselves, and to make the point that God is not simply another being or thing in the universe. God transcends all of our categories, and is properly not a “being” or a “thing” at all. Yet, this transcendent God, this “other Other”, reaches out to us in a personal way. And while this personal mode of reaching out to us enables us to connect with God, it is also a temptation to imagine that God is another person like ourselves, only with massive power and knowledge. We seize upon our experience of God as personal and extrapolate that to imagine God as a human being writ large.
Not only does our image of God as a Super Parental Person-Like Being pose problems, so do our assumptions about the way God should interact with our world. We assume that the power to make things happen according to our will is the greatest power there is. And so, we assume that if God is all-powerful, then it must mean that God can and will make things happen according to God’s will. And yet, the Gospels themselves, in describing to us the life of Jesus, indicate that this is not where the greatest power lies. Jesus, quite deliberately, did not impose himself on others. He did not exercise power over people in order to make his will be done. Indeed, the life of Jesus suggests that for God, the greatest power lies not in making things happen, but rather in being present. God in Christ shows up in people’s lives, is present with them in their lives, and by that very presence, opens up new possibilities. But the realization of those possibilities is never forced by Jesus: it is always dependent on the willingness of people to respond to those possibilities.
And I think it is the presence of God with the universe that makes the universe itself a possibility, including, of course, our lives in the universe and on this world. We generally assume that God caused all of this to come into being as a manifestation of God’s will. But perhaps it is more appropriate to consider that God “showed up” and allowed the universe, and everything in it, to come into being. God’s very presence opened up new possibilities for being that arose and evolved. And God’s presence with us opens up new possibilities for us, but they are possibilities that we must act upon. We have been waiting and praying for God to act. But perhaps the greatest power of God is not in acting, but in being present so that we may act.