IS GODDESS “WITH US” OR “IN CONTROL” OF EVERYTHING? THE “THEOLOGICAL MISTAKE” OF DIVINE OMNIPOTENCE by Carol P. Christ

carol-christHow do we make sense of loss, great loss, and everyday disappointment? Some would tell us that “everything has a purpose” or that whatever happens “must be the will of God.”  I have found that these answers to questions raised by life as we know it often do more harm than good.  Yet they have a sticking power–we hear them all the time, sometimes even from other feminist seekers.

From the beginning feminists in religion rejected “the God out there” who rules the world from a throne in heaven. Most of us have insisted that “God” is more “in” the world than “beyond” or “outside it.” However we have not always been consistent in our convictions. When feminists are confronted with untimely death or great evil or just not getting what we think we want, we can sometimes be overheard to wonder, “Why did God (or Goddess) let that happen?” This question is based in the assumption that God or Goddess is omnipotent and rules the world from outside it. This is the theological idea I intend to question today.

The “zero fallacy” is a term philosopher Charles Hartshorne used to explain the “theological mistake” known as divine omnipotence.  Hartshorne pointed out that if God is omnipotent, then God has “all” or “100%” of the power. If this is so, then human beings and all other beings have “zero” power.  But if we have zero power, then do we even exist?  It is hard to imagine what “existence” means if it is a quality attributed to beings with zero power to affect the world. In fact, if God has 100% of the power, then no being other than the divine being can be said to exist. This is what Hindus may mean when they say that the world is “maya” or illusion.

Yet feminism is about nothing if it is not about affirming the “female power” and women’s ability to “change the world.”

Hartshorne continues.  If beings other than God have some power, then God does not have all the power. From this it follows that everything that happens in the world—whether it be the life or death of a child or the beginning or ending of a war—should not be attributed to God or to Goddess.  If beings other than God or Goddess have some of the power, then many of the events that happen in the world must be attributed to the choices and failures to make choices of beings other than God.

If for example, my dog runs into the street after a cat and is run over by a car, this death should not be attributed to “the will or God.”  The choice of my dog to run after the cat (and not to look both ways before crossing the street) should be taken into account. Chance also comes into it because my dog may have run into the street a hundred or more times without being hit. We might ask if I was diligent in taking care that my dog not be allowed to put herself in danger. We should ask whether or not the driver was driving carefully. If she was, yet she ran over my dog anyway, we must attribute her part in this misfortune to “chance.” The driver simply happened to be coming down the road when my dog ran into the street.

In a world where there are a multiplicity of wills and a multiplicity of factors influencing every event, it makes no sense to attribute everything that happens in the world to the will of God and then to ask why God or Goddess lets certain things happen. Some things happen because of conscious choices individuals make, and many things happen through a combination of many individual choices and chance.

What then is the power of Goddess or God in the world? Does the recognition that beings other than the divine being have the power to create and destroy mean that God has “no” or “zero” power?  This question too is rooted in the theological mistake known as divine omnipotence.  The notion that either God has all the power or God has no power at all is a false dichotomy. What kind of power can a God who does not have all the power have?

What if Goddess is “in” the world and feels the feelings of the world with infinite care and compassion? What if the power of Goddess is power with not power over, the power to inspire but not to control or compel? Then what we do really does make all the difference in the world.  Isn’t this the kind of God feminists were seeking all along–when we rejected the God out there of traditional theologies?

Hartshorne said the idea of an omnipotent God is modeled on the “tyrant ideal” of absolute power over. Should such a God have any place in feminist theology?

Carol P. Christ created a new new website for the Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete which she leads through Ariadne Institute.  Early bird special for the spring pilgrimage extended for those who join now.  Carol can be heard on a WATER Teleconference.  Carol’s books include She Who Changes and Rebirth of the Goddess and the widely-used anthologies Womanspirit Rising and Weaving the Visions

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Categories: Earth-based spirituality, Feminist Theology, God, Goddess, Theology

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13 replies

  1. On the question of one overpowering godhead vs. feminist theology: I love the Demeter-Persephone idea of a double goddess, because it supports divine being in diversity, as well as in relationships. As women our connectedness, not only with each other, but also with nature, that is, our interaction with creatures, plants, lakes, mountains, and sky, and even with a beloved city, are our greatest joy, our true path.

  2. As usual, brava! I’ve been hoping you’d write about process theology (thealogy!). I hope you’ll write more. When I took my hospice classes and when I was an AIDS volunteer, the teachers told us over and over again not to say to the people in our care who were dying “oh, it’s just God’s will.” People do have choices, and sometimes we make really dumb choices. That have consequences. The Goddess is down here with us and stands beside us as we deal with the consequences. Thanks for writing this blog. Please write more.

  3. Hi Carol —

    This is a timely post for me, because I just finished _She Who Changes_. It sent me off to figure out my own thealogical position. I realized that I am a mystical polytheistic panentheist. I agree with you that Goddess is “in” the world, that we have free will and can have a relationship with Her (in fact, once when I was really down, I felt Her kiss me). She is always encouraging us and inspiring us to make a difference in the world. Her power is “power with.” And for me as a mystic, Her power is also “power-from-within,” with which I am in contact sometimes when I meditate, when I chant, when I have mystical experiences, etc. She is the spark within me that connects me to Her as the allness of the universe. I.e. like you and Hartshorne, I’m a panentheist. But as a witch, I have experienced a number of Goddesses and Gods, so I’m a polytheist. And these experiences have connected me mystically to Her.

    When I was trying to understand panentheism, the best analogy for the relationship between humans and God was that of cells in a body to the body itself. Maybe this will help others here on the FAR list. Here’s one of the descriptions I read: “In a human body, for example, the cells are a generally necessary part of the whole, though any individual cell may die or be replaced with no particular harm to the whole. Similarly, cells are themselves made up of constituent parts, and perform different functions. As humans, we are now aware that we have cells; we are reliant upon them; we may even do what we can to increase the overall health of the cells. But we do not control our cells; they function or fail to function independently of our will, for the most part. Additionally, most of us would agree that our larger self, the human being, has a consciousness and awareness that greatly supercedes the awareness of an individual cell, and also human beings have agency that exceeds the agency of a cell – in other words, I as a human person can do things and my cells are a part of that, whether they know it or not. They are a part of a greater whole. Of course, as a human person, I can directly impact some of my cells; I could cut off my leg, for example. And, my cells can impact me – they can grow without regard to limit, and then I have cancer, which could kill me and all my cells. But within this metaphor, you see that the relationship between self and cells is necessary but not directive. Loosely speaking, my cells have free will. As do human beings within the paradigm of panentheism.” I.e. for me Goddess is greater than the sum of Her parts.

  4. Very thought provoking. This whole concept of a god that does whatever he pleases to his subjects with no explanation is precisely why I left christianity in search of a more loving and nurturing deity. The Goddess is who I found. It takes a mother to hold your hand and talk soothingly while you go through some trial that seems impossible to live through. She doesn’t try to explain away life’s problems by telling us it’s all her will. No, She reminds us that we are all part of the earth and as such are subject to its rules. So death becomes part of life not some form of judgment handed out. I have also learned that it is my responsibility to live in such a way that my actions result in what my goals are. I try as hard as I can to do what I think is right for my life, but if I fail I am assured that there is not some judgmental god “out there” that is going to punish me with my inferior results. I now have a loving, caring Mother Goddess who holds my hand and whispers to me that it is all right, I’m only human and to get up and try again. No guilt trip, no condemnation and no “it was the will of god”. Just plain old human error. She has made me a stronger more effective human being. I no longer cower in the corner of my life waiting for my god to dump the next nasty on top of my head.

  5. ” …multiplicity of wills and a multiplicity of factors …” Seems to sum up my experience. She is not the cause of the worlds ills nor the One to stop them. We and I stress WE can bring changes and justice to this world. I work with rape and trafficking survivors. And their pain is caused by humans. Yet, they still ask “why would God let this happen?”. Goddess did not let this happen. Rapists, traffickers, buyers, and apathy let this happen. She has stood with you and me from the beginning. I don’t have to even use a “Her” for thriving to begin. Those that feel safe enough to accept friendship, kindness, sharing and love seem to feel a renewed hope. There are still two steps backward days. I have two step backwards days. That is expected. She is all encompassing and available without being omnipotent. Thank you for this article.

  6. Yes, this is what I feel and think too.

  7. Thank you Carol for this timely lovely article – just finished holding a weekend workshop on The Divine Feminine and it was understanding about the power with-in and not the power ‘over’….Blessed be

  8. We are on sure ground when we envision women and equal rights and freedom. But the landscape of the divine is all speculation in religion, a mirror of our human world, along with all its divisions of power and subject to its prejudices.

  9. Thank you for this article. I started a firestorm on my Facebook page recently when I commented that no outside god was controlling our choices. I was accused of hating people and not believing in god! As a person heavily influenced by process theology (a movement which Hartshorne helped develop), what you describe here is very much my own thinking.

    As my mother commented during the above mentioned debate, I would hate to live in a world where god “willed” the death of your dog or the death of thousands in natural disasters. I cannot square that thought with the idea of a “god with us” who loves us.

    Amy Jo

  10. Exactly my feelings too.

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